Posts Tagged ‘gay’

mary’zine #68: June 2014

May 29, 2014

41-burning-heart-in-flames--vector-illustration-1113tm-v1I am sick. Lovesick. I got a fever of a hundred and three. Hot blooded. Hot blooded. I wish I could tell you everything about her. But I can’t. I can only write about my own feelings. I’ll just say this one thing: She’s not “gay.” But she’s “a little bit gay for me.” It’s confusing for her, but not for me. I’m a seasoned lesbian. (Everything but cilantro.) I haven’t felt this way in a very long time.

Who knew this could happen at my advanced age? My baby sister Barb turned 60 recently, and now she signs herself, “Barbie 60.0.” That would make me Mary 67.5. Unimaginable. I first felt this way about a woman when I was a mere slip of an 18.0. “Our song”—unbeknownst to her—was “Woman” by Peter and Gordon. It was 1965, and it was the love that dared not speak its name. It was the first unconventional love I would experience, but not the last.


I wrote those first two paragraphs a few weeks ago. My fever has gone down slightly, but my love for (and trust of) this amazing woman has sky-rocketed. I can’t believe it.

I’ll call her “she.”

If only life were as simple as Facebook. I could just write, Relationship: Complicated.

My apologies to former lovers reading this. That was then, this is now. No comparisons. Life evolves, and sometimes we do, too. She and I feel that we were meant to get together on the playground (and workshop) of our minds and hearts. We have different—as well as similar—challenges, and we’ve already learned from each other. The banter and light verbal love play are intoxicating, but the drunkenness is fleeting. I’m learning that limitations and uncrossable boundaries can actually provide a freedom to soar above. She says she would like me to find a “complete” relationship, which she can’t give me for various reasons. I’m not interested in that. I’m much more interested in the inner life than the outer, and we are able to meet on that level. Though the screen is our palette, I am in love with the message, not the medium. She is a flesh and blood woman, proficient in the use of language, as I am. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed within that simple, seemingly colorless frame: some tears, some hearty LOLs, a few evocative icons, and the heart and intelligence to meet each other as equals and give and receive forgiveness for our failings. She believes in getting things out in the open. I’m more of a lurker. But I’m learning to love the challenge. One day there’s a misunderstanding—to be expected, since we are often typing at the same time, referring to earlier conversations or a parallel thread. She asks, “Are you playing games with me?” “No!” I stand my ground, assert my meaning. Suddenly “we can see clearly now”: Our first “fight” ends with mutual respect. I remind her what comes after a fight (make-up sex), but alas that’s not what we’re about. It’s a turning point, though, a moment of truth…. We both have trust issues, and we seem to be equally matched in guts and glory.


This thing started innocently enough. We were drawn to each other’s writing, and she to my paintings. I gave her a painting when I barely knew her. I could see that she was passionate about it, and the one she wanted was one I had thought no one would love but me.

Past middle age already, the body starts to fall apart. But the sexual flame can burn as hot as ever. The pounding heart when I see that she has left me a message: Priceless. It starts in the loins and progresses to the heart. On the one hand, my heart is sick with longing for what can never be. But on the other hand, I feel the simple joy of being alive and loving, not just her (in that heart-pounding way), but all my friends, and even some strangers, and humanity in general. I’m painting with my feverish heart. The images come fast and furious, and I paint them all, feel them all in my blood.

If I sound foolish, so be it. I am glad to feel this foolish, to have such a strong attraction to a woman with whom I can only relate via words on surrogate paper. I’m being here, now. Feeling what I feel as I go along. Dancing the pas de deux with a beautiful soul.

I had a new t-shirt made with the saying, “as is.” It was her idea, actually, that I would have to take her “as is.” And that’s exactly how I take her, and how she takes me. I have gained new confidence since my recent sexual escapade with an old friend… not just realizing that I’m capable of having sex, but that I want to. It’s been a long time since I even considered it. Self-confidence suffuses my being, makes me both lighter and stronger. This is true even though physical sex is not an option for us. But as I wrote in ‘zine #67, I am burning bright in myself. She is catching some of the passionate run-off, but I stake no claim on her. She’s only “a little bit gay.” Not enough to start a fire. I keep feeling like I’m borrowing Melissa Etheridge lyrics. Or Bruce Springsteen’s. Music is making me feel so full lately, so light on my feet. I dance inwardly and outwardly. We share songs that have touched us deeply. Music is the expression of sex, when sex is not on the table (so to speak). Sex is the heart’s blood. You don’t have to do it, but you can feel it, dammit… even we who live in the land where Puritans came to die.

I’m gushing. I know that. And instead of obeying the writer’s rule to “show, not tell,” I am just saying and saying and saying. And feeling and feeling. It feels good, it feels like almost too much but never quite. I am containing it, and it is pulsing within me. I am having an attack of the heart—but it’s a benign and joyous attack, like Death by Chocolate.

Besides: How can you not love someone who thinks your writing is “sublime”?


I love being gay, and it has almost nothing to do with sex (despite what I just said). Someday we will be completely absorbed into the larger society and it will seem odd that we were ever singled out for scorn and harassment. Society’s targets constantly change, while the methods and rationale remain the same. The Irish were the first “niggers” (A Different Mirror; Ronald Takaki). I worked with a woman direct from England who was scoffing at the idea of St. Patrick’s Day, and then she noticed that I was in the room and remembered the first 2 letters of my surname. She quickly backpedaled, but I caught the innuendo. And yet Irish Americans are, as far as I can tell, perfectly respectable now. And so will gay people be, one day.

Being gay, in the early 1970s when I came out, was difficult and awkward in many ways, but I loved living an “alternative lifestyle,” below the radar. By the way, I faced more surly looks and comments in the San Francisco Bay Area than I do here in the U.P. That probably just means that we’re still underground here, not at the top of anyone’s list of people to hate. But I’ve faced down a few men who thought they could stare and smirk and make me slink away with my vagina between my legs. One guy was sitting at the counter at the former Pat and Rayleen’s. I was paying my bill, the smirker smirked, and I stared back at him with fierce dyke eyes. Of course he backed down and looked away, what was he going to do? I happen to look more intimidating than I feel (or so I’ve been told: The enormous husband of a friend of mine thought I was going to kick his ass), so that can work for me in selected situations (daylight, public space, people around).

Back in those semi-dark ages, being gay seemed like a platinum credit card with no spending limit. We could move about, make changes, live our lives with no one being the wiser. P and I bought a house in Marin (suburb of San Francisco) when we couldn’t stand living in the cold and fog in S.F. anymore. The neighborhood was nice, the house and yard were quintessential suburbia, and the kitchen sported a counter with bar stools on one side, which perfectly matched our sense of ourselves as upwardly mobile semi-professionals. I said to P one day, “I feel like we fell through the cracks! How do they let us do this?” San Francisco was used to its “gays,” but Marin was a bedroom community that hadn’t quite registered our presence in its midst. It was like playing dress-up, or “store” or “house” in the basement when we were kids. It seemed like the ultimate payback for the discrimination we faced in other areas: “We will live like you!—not to mock you but because we watched Leave It to Beaver growing up, too, and we want nice things.” This could be the exact strategy of the baby-making gay men and lesbians who get to prove, finally, that we all have the equipment for reproduction regardless of who is paired with whom. Who knew that it would be “Adam and Steve” living in the garden? (“Ann and Eve”? I’ve never heard a female version of this meme.)

Lesbians were second-class gay citizens until we were (for some reason) included in the movement’s acronyms, LGBT and its more complicated successors; and not just included, but first! (For a handy definition of terms, see Now it’s de rigueur to say “lesbians and gay men,” although we’re still made to feel less than our male counterparts, because their public image is one of “slender, beautiful, and talented,” whereas ours is “fat and flannel wearing.” (Sex guy Dan Savage looks down on us for letting ourselves go. Dig a little deeper, Dan; there are reasons for that.) Men have agency. Women who don’t desire men and are not desired by them are either irrelevant or threatening to the world as men see it.

I love not being on a conventional track. I was “as good as married” for 12 years, and our break-up, though painful as any other, involved piling my VW Bug with whatever it would carry and driving 10 miles south to my new apartment. A good friend who got married when it was made legal in Massachusetts went through hell and a lot of money to get out of that contract.


When you’re in love, no one really wants to hear about it. Good friends will listen as they listen to any other story about your life, but there’s a limit to what you feel you can tell them. You don’t just want to give the barest details, the who, the why, the how-you-met—you want to repeat and chuckle over the endearments, the in-jokes, the “you won’t believe what she said last night”s. For some reason, it isn’t enough to laugh about this with your new love, you want to share. And we all know what sharing that sort of thing eventually turns into: too much information.

Lovers are inherently selfish. You’re delighted with yourselves, proud that someone chose you. You get giddy, adopt pet names, stay online, on the phone, or in bed (if you’re lucky) for hours. The rest of the world recedes, at least for the duration. It’s wonderful, but sometimes you feel it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing will come crashing down. The wrong person will find out, or, worse, one lover’s definition of the relationship (an unstoppable force) will meet the other lover’s quite different idea of what’s going on (an immovable object).

There is a certain amount of hubris involved in a new love relationship. You think you can change her life, just as she expects to make a few adjustments to yours. Neither plan may live up to the expectations of the other. Geography, marital status, sexual orientation, and other factors that seem like certainties may temporarily be finessed or passed over, as if the grand belief that “anything is possible” is really a solid basis for reconciling your two hearts. Yes, people can move, marriages can end, and sexual orientation can be redefined, but often these fixes are not possible or even desired.


I feel like I’ve gained a new lease on life and all the other clichés that say the same thing. My blood is pounding at more frequent intervals, my organs are sprucing themselves up and getting a new wardrobe, and I feel more alive and engaged than I have felt in years. I haven’t been unhappy here in the U.P.—quite the opposite. But a few years ago I felt complete, felt I had accomplished all I’d wanted to in life, and was perfectly happy to let it all go if that’s what was meant to happen. Now… I want to stick around. It was the farthest thing from my mind that I would ever fall in love again, let alone feel physically attracted to someone who returned the emotional attachment if not the full complement of sexual feelings.

But even that sexual asymmetry can work in one’s favor. It’s lovely to be loved, even if it can’t be embodied. Sex is there when we love the same song. We have been known to break out in lyrics when we’re typing onscreen. Music is in our blood. Our hot blood. My hot blood, maybe “a little bit” in hers. I’m not responsible for her blood, nor she for mine. Whatever’s happening with her is fine with me.

There are, of course, many patterns that lovers tend to play out. And maybe everyone thinks they will be different. But I truly feel that I have found someone who is able and willing to transcend the burden and complications of a physical love and living situation. When faced with limitations, you can turn them around to become advantages. We are both oriented toward the inner rather than the outer. We enjoy and are learning from each other in all the ways that matter: becoming stronger, more secure in our own beings. Working through the baggage we all carry, in whatever degree and kind. You could say it’s just cerebral, but it’s a lot more than that. She’s the only person I’ve found who is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Both familiar and exciting. Neither of us was looking for anything or anyone. We met under the most unlikely circumstances. And I will be forever grateful to her, regardless of what happens next.


Is that all you can talk about, Mare? Yeah, pretty much… for now. My heart is full, and so is my mind…. wondering at life’s sudden changes of direction. But what seems to be coming out of thin air actually has long-growing roots. A long-awaited bloom. A spring that took forever to get here but is now bursting with life.

Bring it on.

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mary’zine #65: February 2014

February 5, 2014

Well, this is awkward. I had this issue of the mary’zine all ready to go when something happened that completely changed my premise, my mood, and my confidence. But what I had written was pretty inspiring, if I do say so myself, so I am retaining some of it. I wrote about miracles, how they don’t come from outside—Jesus or “the universe”—but from deep within. What I didn’t realize was that miracles can reverse or redefine themselves. Imagine you’re savoring your cup of wine and suddenly it turns back into water. Perhaps the miracle was not the transformation of the substance but the discovery that something deeper is going on. Or you are successfully risen from the dead, only to keel over 5 minutes later from a heart attack. I can’t presume to know what deeper miracle could be at work in that case, but my point is that things are not always what they seem. Even miracles.

To be continued on the other side of my sad air travel stories.

adventure time

Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self—Orange Is the New Black

This definition of adventure suits me to a tee. My trips to the West Coast certainly qualify as “hardship,” but I also have a rather inflated sense of self. Voilà: adventure. Most people who fly across the country don’t consider it adventure or hardship. But they are not me, are they?

When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. on the morning of my departure for the December painting intensive, I wished with all my heart that I could call it off. I sat there for 5 minutes hoping for an act of God, a small personal injury, or the huevos to call Barbara and simply announce, “I’m not coming—and you can’t make me!” This attitude is not much different from the feelings I had in high school when I had to get up before dawn to get ready for a long car trip to Marquette or Houghton for a debate tournament. I’ll never know why I put myself through that. As with painting, it was my choice to participate, to take those forays into the scary unknown—but the part of me that wants to hold back, stay home, stay safe has always been so strong.

I confess to having flown between Green Bay and Chicago without wearing a seat belt. I hate asking for the extension, and the flight attendants on United Express tend to be less than diligent in checking. They have virtually nothing to do on that flight… no beverage service, nothing. They drone on about what to do if the plane crashes over Lake Michigan (which they never say in so many words; they call it a “water landing,” making it sound like a fun ride at Six Flags), but they often don’t notice my lack of seat belt or the noncompliance of the person in the seat in front of me who does not return her seat back to its full upright position. With all the rude jokes about fat Midwesterners, you’d think the regional airlines would invest in seat belts that go all the way around a body. None of this is an excuse for “flying bareback,” as it were. I’m just saying it happens sometimes.

close encounters with the martinets of the airways

The TSA agents at the Green Bay airport are patient and kind. They fall all over themselves accommodating folks, even wishing us an enjoyable flight! This attitude is not known in other airports, or at least I haven’t experienced it.

Flying west, I only have to go through security in Green Bay, but on the way back, the San Francisco airport can be its own special ring of hell. You never know what you’re going to encounter, or indeed what the rules are. This is between 4 and 4:30 a.m. after driving from The City to SFO, getting past the side-by-side signs that tell you that San Bruno Ave. is this way and San Bruno (the town) is that way. San Bruno Ave. is the turnoff for the airport, but it has always been a mystery to me why they don’t do something—perhaps add “SFO” to the Ave. sign—so confused out-of-towners don’t have to make the split-second decision of which way to go. I mean, I mostly know how to get there after X number of years of doing it, but it still makes me nervous every time.

So this is after the 7-day painting intensive. Terry happens to be on my flight from SFO to Chicago, but we might as well be in different worlds, because I’m in first class and she’s back in coach. I even have a different security line to go through. Both of us had discovered at some point that we have been “pre-checked” by TSA (when did that happen, and how, and why?). The only perk I’ve noticed is that we don’t have to take our shoes off, for which small favor I am grateful in the extreme. In San Francisco this time I’ve put everything I’m carrying into the bins. I notice a TSA agent standing near the body scanner, or whatever they’re calling it now, but I don’t know or care what he’s doing there. As I start to move toward the scanner, he stops me and says, with a hefty dash of disbelief in his voice, “You didn’t take your shoes off!” I say, “I’m pre-checked.” He says, “I’ll need proof of that.” I point out that the proof—my boarding pass—is at that moment going through the conveyer belt x-ray, and he says he can’t let me through unless I take off my shoes. It is early enough, I am tired enough, and I’m just plain fucking annoyed enough to want to take this dispute all the way to the Shoepreme Court (ha). But he has been designated the interpreter and enforcer of the rules, a self-contained unit like the baby doll who can both drink water and pee it out. I have been threatened in the past with being “escorted out” for not having thrown my water bottle away, so I know there’s no room for an indignant customer to vent. We are just a few steps away from the conveyer belt, but of course the guy is not going to go over there and pull my bag out and check the boarding pass. I know it’s stupid, but I finally am granted the right to keep my goddamn shoes on, and now I have to take them off anyway? He tells me that I was told I’d have to hold on to my boarding pass. “No, I wasn’t.” “I’m sure you were.” Blah blah blah. I’m not going to say the U.S. is turning into 1930s Germany, but if it were, they wouldn’t have to change much to keep us in line. We are being schooled.

One of the most bizarre encounters I’ve ever had with a flight attendant (FA) was also on the flight out of San Francisco. Because a male passenger had condescendingly (“No, no, no, no, no…”) informed me that I couldn’t put my coat and cane in the overhead bin because he needed to put his ginormous roller bag up there (Me: “I checked MY baggage”), the FA put them up front. When we got to Chicago, we were delayed for about half an hour on the runway because another plane was sitting at our gate. I only had an hour or so to get to my connecting flight. As we’re finally inching toward the gate, the same FA gives me back my coat but not my top hat and cane. (OK, there was no top hat.) When we’re standing by the door waiting for it to open, I ask for my cane, and she says, “I told you to remain in your seat until I see your wheelchair.” (I always order a wheelchair to get me between concourses, terminals, or universes, as the case may be.) This is ridiculous. I ask her why. She says, “It’s cold out there” (in the Jetway), but what does that have to do with anything? I argue with her, and she finally changes her tack: “So what do you want to do, then?” This throws me off, because—what? She asks the same question several times—I guess I’m not responding coherently—I’m hopped up on goofballs, lady!—and reiterates that she can’t let me out until she sees my wheelchair. A male FA then reaches over several heads to hand me my cane. (Although they may be equal in rank, the male in the situation gets to make a unilateral decision. If the sexes were reversed, I don’t think the woman could have overridden the man’s demand).

So the door opens, and I huff and hobble my way up the ramp. Another employee comes out of nowhere and says my wheelchair is waiting at the top, but when I get there it’s gone. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it to my next flight, but I give it the old college try. I flag down a passing cart, and the very nice woman driver takes me to the other terminal. At some point Terry catches up with me, and we discover we’re stranded: All the flights leaving Chicago are being canceled because of a massive snowstorm. The last time this happened to me, I was stuck there for 3 days. This time, I’m thrilled to have the misery-loves-company. As we approach the Hilton, we have to be handed over because they can’t take us “out of the airport,” though it’s under the same roof. T kindly pays for the room, but I insist on paying for dinner in the dining room, which costs almost as much.

We are both given new reservations for our separate flights the next day—me to Green Bay, her to Hartford CT. It still looks very snowy, so I don’t have much faith that we’ll get out of there anytime soon, but past the initial delight at having the extra time together, I really want to get home so I can change my clothes. In the morning we’re given free chits for the buffet and have a decent breakfast before parting ways with such sweet sorrow.

Going through security, I make it through with my pre-check privilege intact, but then I’m told I’ve been randomly selected for special treatment. I have to go to another area, hold my hands out with my palms up, and get swabbed for… explosives. Really? I’ve been pre-checked for my shoes but not my hands? When he’s done, the guy has to tell me to put my hands down, because I am at heart a good little rule-follower—isn’t that always the way with rebels? We secretly crave security but fight against that humiliating desire whenever possible.

It’s on the United Express flight north that I don’t wear my seat belt. At Green Bay—not having had a “water landing” over a certain Great Lake—I discover that my suitcase has preceded me, so that’s a comfort. (But why does the plane carrying my luggage never get stranded like the plane carrying me?) My Jeep is covered in snow but starts right up. After my usual side trip to El Sarape, I drive the 50+ miles home, fighting sleep all the way. As always, it is bliss to get home and see my kitties, who are in a flurry, wanting at the same time to (a) bounce around me and (b) run through the house celebrating my return (or so I like to think). We end up in a pile on the big chair and ottoman and sleep like angels.


… the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

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Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.



the body abides

In mary’zine #62 (June 2013), I wrote about a major change in my relationship to my physical self. It happened over the course of 7 days of painting—or at least that’s when it made itself known—and at my advanced age, it felt like a miracle. One of the signs was a completely unexpected attraction to an old friend. I was burning up with it, but she was hesitant… more than hesitant… she didn’t see how it could work. So I reluctantly put those thoughts aside and tried to see that the important part of what had happened was my feeling. I was the one who had changed, I who now knew the power of long repression of the life of the body, and its release.


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lez iz more

The feelings returned when I saw her next, 6 months later. She still had doubts, but then “one thing led to another” (as they say), and we became lovers. She didn’t hold anything back, and neither did I. I had never felt anything like this: We were completely compatible, like horse and carriage, like love and same-sex marriage. We were not afraid, or shy. We were both completely open to each other. She came to visit me over Christmas, and it was even better than before. I learned so much about my body, my expectations, my seemingly bottomless fount of desire and satisfaction. We felt as natural and close as we ever had in our almost 30-year friendship, but now with new feelings, new expressions. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was a strong sense of que sera sera, at least on my part. Of course, it’s always easier to trust the Truth when it’s working out so great for you in the moment.

This was huge for me. For at least 45 years I have worked on changing myself. I’ve followed people who seemed to have the truth, I’ve read books that seemed to have the truth…. I’ve had the practice of painting which has given me many rewards over the years, but the reward that has been the longest in coming to my conscious attention is this knowledge that we change, not only from the inside out, but from deep down, below our knowing. And I’ve learned to pay attention to the subtle indications, like when I started noticing I was getting more interested in my family and my hometown, back before I had any conscious knowledge that I would ever (in a million years) want to move back here. Something inside us knows before the conscious mind does, and given time and attention it eventually shows itself. So I say now that I don’t decide what to do, I find out what to do. When the time was right to make the move back home, everything fell into place. When I was finding out if I wanted to live here, I was committed to accepting the truth when it was revealed, whatever it was. I have a confidence in myself now that’s like the dreams I have in which I’m driving a car but I can’t see where I’m going. I panic, but suddenly I can see again and I’m perfectly safe.




One of the most amazing discoveries we made during the time my friend/lover and I spent together was the insignificance of orgasm. Not just insignificance: irrelevance. What we had was way better than     orgasm. More sustained, completely satisfying. I’m now spoiled for the self-induced orgasms I’ve used as my surrogate “sex life.” This is the opposite of “lesbian bed death.” This is lesbian bed resurrection, insurrection, uprising and rising and rising… a completely different way of experiencing sex.

ooh la la!


But then—life turned on another dime, and I found myself on the wrong side of the door: the door of Love. She couldn’t “emotionally commit”; it didn’t feel “completely right.” There is no way to accurately interpret what the one who turns away is saying. All the assertions that “I love you so much” and “sex with you is so wonderful” do all but make the mind implode when she says she’s “not ready” to embrace this new/old relationship.img001 copy 8

Despite my assertions about my new-found confidence, I haven’t quite gotten my head around this. I finally have the best sex of my life with someone I love very much, and it’s suddenly snatched away. (When good writers make bad puns….) But I’m quite sure I have not lost the most important thing: the capacity to express and receive love through my body. It’s just hard to know what to do with it now.

I know that life’s pain—of love, of attraction, of rejection—is the doorway. It’s hard to explain what this doorway is. What’s on the other side, and why is it important to go there? I believe that Truth is there, behind the pain, and it is not dependent on anyone outside myself, even a wonderful lover. So: My mission now is to face the Truth—no holds barred, no excuses accepted, and no explanations required.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

—John O’Donohue (To Bless the Space Between Us)


mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013


The Difference (King’s X)

 I walked through a garden
In the morning
I walked right into
A change

No words were spoken
Just a feeling
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

Wind it comes and
It blows
Where it comes from
I don’t know

To look for a reason
Might just kill it
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

And I cannot explain


7 days

Terry read us the above song lyric during the last sharing of the May painting intensive at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco. It fit my experience of the week perfectly. And now I face the challenge of using language to somehow “explain,” describe, or at least evoke it in some way.

As usual, I have lots of little things to share about my trip, some on the ground, some in the air, but one major theme has come up that doesn’t seem suited to intertwining with details about restaurants, traffic, and funny conversations. I’m not sure what to do about that. If I promise to put all that stuff at the end and call it The Lighter Side, can you stay with me here as I no doubt poorly “explain” the big thing that happened? OK, here goes.

Writing this the day after I got home, my mind is buzzing and my body is buzzing, but I don’t think they’re buzzing in the same direction. Or level. Or something. The mind is all earnest and heartfelt and wanting to share the strangeness and plumb the apparent disconnect between physicality and consciousness. Its agenda is to understand and thereby control the strange goings-on. But the body is all about the inarticulate but strongly felt sensations where old and new experiences and perceptions are stored. Far from languishing, it exerts its own control from down in the briny deep.

In the last issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about a body part that I loathe. But I have encountered new life, new blood in a region of my body that has been felt but unplumbed for a very long time. It is, for lack of a better term, the “lower region.” I would call it visceral, the “pit of my stomach,” but anatomically I don’t even think the stomach is that far down. I will just call it the “lower region”: the lower belly, just shy of the genital area but surely connected to it by plumbing (!) and magic.

So Barbara was talking about this “lower region” and about how much feeling and power is stored there. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, and she gestured to the area on her own body, but I wasn’t sure what the perimeters were. I made her stand up and show me. I was really excited to know that something important goes on in that area, because I’ve had sensations there (rare but strong) since a young age. I couldn’t put a name to them, but I eventually came up with the words lovepityhome…. The love and pity seemed to be for my mother. I remember when I was about 12 years old she had bought me a pair of slacks for Easter. When I went into my bedroom to try them on, I had this intense sensation (quick, where’s my thesaurus?)—a short-lived piercing ache, an abyss of love closely linked to pain into which I could toss any number of words: regret? fear? guilt? the bleakness and joy of existence in this world? I wanted to escape my situation (home), but I felt inexorably tied to it, to my family whom I knew I would leave behind literally and in so many other ways. I knew my mother loved me. But her attempts to please me made me feel almost worse than her insensitivity to my feelings at other times. Her life was hard, with an invalid husband to care for and a family of five to support. She did her best, and maybe that’s why I felt that “strange brew” in my body. (The band Cream’s song “Strange Brew”—“kill what’s inside of you.”)

(I’m throwing a bunch of words on this, like sprinkling salt on a casserole. I hope it makes sense, on some level.)

I’ve had this sensation many times over the years, and I welcome it, I’m not sure why. It comes on its own, I can’t make it happen. And now that I know it’s an important part of the body’s feeling apparatus, uncontrolled by the mind—that ultimate emperor with no clothes—I want to become more aware of it and express it or follow it, or whatever will give it the freedom to flower.

I can’t believe that it took me more than a week to connect sex to this area. For almost the whole intensive, I was having strong sexual feelings, and by the last day it was clear that those feelings were being prompted by my new attention to this complicated area of my body. (“This old gray Mare still has some gas in her tank!”, I thought, or maybe that was Minnie Pearl.) I’m still not sure how sex enters into the love/pity/home theme, but I suppose it makes sense that the most difficult feelings, the ones most laden with significance and physicality, would all be related somehow.


During the week I had the usual feelings of disconnect between painting and life. As in the song lyrics I quoted at the beginning, painting made a huge difference but it wasn’t possible to trace the connecting lines, connect the dots, explain a damn thing. On the painting I started after the talk about the “lower region,” I painted myself standing knee-deep in a body of water, and all my attention was on what was below the water—as if my own body were a mere afterthought. Barbara and I saw this at the same time, and it was very telling. I had to focus on my body, which was difficult because I couldn’t paint my feelings literally: A black or muddied band around the lower region wasn’t going to be enough. So I just painted, and I have no idea what happened. The painting isn’t finished, but I scanned a couple parts of it to show you.

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Looking at these images now, I’m struck by two things: The “lower region” I’m talking about has an eye in it. This makes me wonder if that part of the body, an apparent storehouse of denied emotion, is more wise and sensitive than we can imagine. And the larger eyes, especially as seen in the second image, project intense power. As I was painting, I had no idea that they meant anything, and they weren’t even in the “area” I wanted to concentrate on. But looking at them now, it seems obvious.

The sexual resurgence I started to feel during the painting week has continued. Have I unleashed something—my own Pandora’s box*—only to be stymied in the face of consequences? (*According to that bastion of scholarly research, Wikipedia, the “box” was really a jar; [“I left Pandora’s box ajar”?] The mistranslation was blamed on Erasmus of Rotterdam. But I digress. No, wait, I’m not finished. Zeus gave Pandora the jar, with instructions not to open it under any circumstances. Remind you of anything? Hint: apple, snake? What is it with mythological male figures enticing women to do “evil” (assuming evil = mere curiosity) and thus bring down the wrath of the very same gods (or God). By the way, Zeus didn’t punish Pandora for disobeying him—“because he knew this would happen.” It was a set-up from the beginning!)

Since the first insight about the “lower region” struck me, I’ve been discovering layers upon layers of repercussions. One of the major ones is not just sex but Desire. Desire seeks an object. Pandora’s container is easily unhinged when Desire is on the lam. Is Pandora’s jar commensurate with desire? or merely with fantasy? Does fantasy lead to recklessness…cracking the foundation of truth by placing unearned weight on it? or balancing rickety ladders on chair rails to reach a higher understanding? Can fantasy be a means to the truth? One of my dalliances, years ago, resulted in my seeing beyond the illusion of lust to the truth that both of us were in it for ourselves. There was a lot of hot body action but no true communion of souls. Just two female animals trysting under the stars (or in my office after hours, but if this were a poem I wouldn’t mention that). But talk about being alone when you’re with someone. Selfishness (whether the driver or the result of fantasy) is isolating.

So when I got home after the intensive, I found—or imagined—an object of desire in the form of an old friend who had once been attracted to me. It surprised me indeed to open that door and find her there… as if she had been sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. It was astonishing to think that this could be real. But would my desire for her be a welcome gift? Or would it be seen as a mixed message, a mixed gift, a once-nixed gift, a gift too old to be of value?

Desire: a hard pounding in my heart, a hurt before it ever finds its happiness, and also after.

I held Desire in until I couldn’t hold it anymore: the hot potato of love. I threw it to her—made my proposition. I wanted to make a deal. I’d pick door #1, the least threatening, the least life-altering, the maximum good with the minimum cost or hazard. Sex is infinitely malleable, is it not? Couldn’t we define it, indulge in it, as narrowly or as broadly as we chose? We had a long-lasting friendship, had been through a lot together. And there are no rules for being gay (one of the best parts, frankly). Straight people have several well-worn paths laid out for them, whereas we are always, of necessity, blazing our own trails.

Unfortunately, being human does have rules. Truth has rules, as well as hard-and-fast demands. Truth will not be cheated or betrayed. Truth cannot be faked, or extended like a warranty, or cut to fit the Procrustean bed. It just is. Truth is. There is nothing else. Imagine that! We dither and debate and put our thumb on the scale to give ourselves a small advantage, but advantage does not exist, it is ephemeral, and still a cheat in the long run. Truth is. Being is. Honesty is all there is. Existence is truth, with an unyielding foundation—or none at all; which is scarier? I think truth matters but is not material. There’s not even a choice. All of our choices are imaginary escapes. To be still, silent, unreaching, unmoving, even burning with desire… Desire is a gift because it is fuel for being, and being still. It does not require tossing itself like a hot potato, hoping for another to catch it, keep it, nurture it, and pass it back and forth until the heat disperses.

If I can’t toss my hot love potato to a suitable (and willing) mate, then what is there to do? Loving, longing, lounging, logging. OK, logging won’t help, but maybe longing. What does one long for if not the unattainable? And what does one do with a lifetime of repressed power? If I let it grow and be, it will guide me. It will guide me right back to myself, because, really, it’s the only place to be. Longing is not for something, it’s an expression of self. Putting oneself out there by going nowhere. I do not long for, I just long.

At least, now, in my semi-dotage—I put myself somewhere around October 12th in the metaphor of months equaling a life—I am surely still capable of spinning golden threads of illusion, but I am also a seasoned veteran of the ineluctable Real: the stronger force—the stronger desire—which is for truth. Truth of my feeling. Truth of my lover’s feeling. Truth of relationship and loving connection whether or not the connection is the one desired in the moment. Honesty in talking about these things with openness, understanding of risk, self-awareness, love for the other even when her truth means she has to reject the offer, the longing, the desire. One knows one is loved when one is turned down so gently, almost wistfully.

A crisis of faith would be to dwell on what might have been at the expense of what is. What is true. Right here, right now. There is no other place I want to be.

 I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up… in me.

(“Right Here, Right Now,” sung by Jesus Jones; slight edit by Mare)



the lighter side!

So now I’ll tell you about my flight to S.F. At Chicago O’Hare (an airline-sponsored ring of hell) we sat on the runway for the usual unit of time (long). I dozed off, having taken the requisite Dramamine and lorazepam, and awoke as if after an entire night’s sleep to hear the pilot announce, “Ready for takeoff.” I was alarmed and asked my seat mate, a young man, “You mean we haven’t even left yet?” He looks out the window and dryly points out the obvious, that “we’re still on the ground.” I can see a large American Airlines building in the distance and, indeed, I can see ground, but in my drug-addled state I thought for a moment that I had slept all the way to San Francisco and the plane was now about to take off for somewhere else. I just said, “Oh my God” and fell back asleep. I was glad later that I hadn’t jumped up and cried, “I forgot to get off the plane!” The only other time I spoke to that guy was when I saw a flight attendant preparing the pilot’s meal. We in first class had been given the choice of spinach cannelloni or chicken cacciatore, but when the flight attendant got to me, the cannelloni was gone already and she had to give me a detailed explanation of which passengers got first choice: global, premiere, super-duper (I quickly lost track of United’s superlative brand names), front to back of cabin, most miles flown, etc. (Those last two don’t even make sense: your seat in the 6-row cabin is not determined by your customer status). So I picked at the chicken, ate a roll, and pondered how even paying for first class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get all the perks. You get a hot towel, though, and hot nuts, which impress me a lot less than they did on my first first class flight. So when I saw what the pilot was getting, I turned to my seat mate and said, with heavy emphasis, “The pilot got a baked potato.” The guy had to remove one earphone to hear me. “What?” “The pilot got a baked potato.” We chuckled in mock outrage, and I was quite proud of my brazen importuning of this perfect stranger.

I’ve noticed a difference in how I deal with strangers these days, especially during a painting intensive. Everywhere we went in the City, I felt like I was facing each person we encountered with my “front” completely undefended. It seemed so much easier than trying to shrink back and hide behind an imaginary shield of invisibility. My back, of course, was spine-sturdy, a literal back-up should things go wrong. Sensing danger or disdain, the openness shuts down quietly, like a Kindle cover clicking quietly closed (I should have gone into advertising). A case in point: I did not feel open to my seat mate on the flight back home. There was something about him, or the way he ignored me, I’m not sure what it was, but I held myself back and we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t hiding from him, just self-contained. Thanks, 12 years of somatic psychotherapy!

Terry and I had a great week—with each other, with the other painters, and with the many strangers and old friends we encountered during our daily rounds of lunch, dinner, and grocery shopping. We stayed in a different house this time, in Bernal Heights a block off Mission, and enjoyed the amazing views and spacious upstairs with a beautiful long table that was our command center for eating, computing, and piling stuff. It had lots of stairs to contend with, but I’m happy to report that I had no walking-related pains during the week. I had my cane along, but I was able to get around pretty well without it. This was huge… and stood me in good stead when I had to walk/scuttle/shuffle halfway across O’Hare to make my connecting flight home when the cart driver off-loaded me far from the gate. (A not very interesting story for another day, perhaps when I publish my Stories That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else, and Aren’t That Interesting Anyway.)

Driving all over the City (and dipping down into Marin briefly) in a cramped and weak-willed Ford Fiesta, I had a few close calls in traffic, but I got us home without any major damage to ourselves or the car, didn’t I? I mean, that red arrow at the ramp onto South 101 in Mill Valley was obscured by my sun visor. And that yellow car on Mission came out of nowhere! Plus, I had no choice but to blast through the red light at Sloat and Ocean, because I was caught in the intersection and had to keep going, I couldn’t go back: “I have to! I have to!,” I cried, as T gazed in horror at the three or four lanes of traffic to our right that now had the right of way. Occasionally, I let her drive and we both felt empathy for the other’s position: She had to make the crucial decisions when there was no traffic light to legislate our stop-and-go, and I experienced the helplessness of having no control over those decisions except to say “Wait!” or “Go, go go!”


Yes, I’m all over the place with my stories, but though the 7 days seemed to progress in a linear fashion—night/day, night/day—the way one remembers things is not linear at all. It’s all a mishmash in there, and one thought that rises to the surface may lead to another that is not obviously related. Welcome to the human brain.


New restaurants. L’Avenida is gone now, a huge disappointment. We tried to go to El Toreador in West Portal, but there was a long wait. So we strolled across the street to Spiazzo at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were surprised to get seated within 15 minutes. Excellent food, too. We also had two meals at Tacos Los Altos on Cortland in Bernal Heights. I enjoyed the super veggie burrito, but the second meal of steak enchiladas didn’t meet the high standards of Mexican food that I have become accustomed to in Wisconsin. (I had lunch at El Sarape after I touched down at GRB, because, well, when in Green Bay, eat like the Green Bayans do. My favorite Mexican-American waiter there always remembers me and my sisters, so I thought I was giving him and the restaurant a compliment when I told him that I preferred the food he was serving me to what I had had in San Francisco. Too late, I realized that I was saying more about my limited palate than I was about the heavily Midwesternized meals they serve around here. The waiter said he was from Los Angeles and preferred the food out there. Yeah, OK, never mind.

The painting week was filled with good will and great conversations with Penny R, Diane L, Diane D (who didn’t paint and could only join us for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights, but her presence was a mitzvah as always), Sandra, Carol, Kate, Linda, Kyle…. Barbara was a delight and a challenge—deeply caring, deeply trusting of her own truth, and deeply in tune with our process(es). Even when I wasn’t sure I was “feeling anything,” it was clear that “something was going on”; I think painting has made me lose my words, or at least my exacting ones. Barbara pointed out that I’m comfortable in the world of language, and that living in the body is more difficult for me. The shift confounds me, because I’ve always believed that coming up with just the right word or string of words is as good as any inchoate “feeling.” I’ve always thought I would be more comfortable as a head in a jar (but not Pandora’s), as long as I could write or speak. Maybe with Google glass and other high technical arts to remove the body’s distractions from the interface, humanity will eventually do away with the physical world altogether?  (But I would miss cats; maybe I could have a cat head in a jar next to me. Oh, now I’m just being silly.)

One day in the sharing, I relayed a true story I’d read online about a man who had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. Turns out he wasn’t actually swallowed (I’d been thinking: There are only two exits—which one did he escape from, and how?). He told it this way: “I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realised I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.” Eventually, the hippo “spit [him] out.” My favorite part was the guy’s conclusion: “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.” I thought it was quite an instructive message, raising questions as to the nature of time, perception, and WTF he was doing that close to a hippo. (Answer: He’s a river guide—a one-armed river guide at this point.)

I think the biggest laff of the week came when Barbara told us about being hugged by a neighbor who always says, “God bless you.” Barbara was unsure how to respond. “You too” didn’t seem right. Even less so: “Back atcha.” I suggested she answer her in German, in which Barbara is fluent. So Amanda pipes up: “Gesundheit?” OK, so you had to be there, but the thought of saying “Gesundheit” to someone who’s just said “God bless you” was just too hilarious. We laughed like crazy persons.

Neither Terry nor I could sleep the night before we were to leave, so we started the “day” at 2 a.m. We followed her GPS to SFO, dropped the rental car off at Hertz, and parted on the air train because we were leaving from different terminals. It was bittersweet. At security, I was astonished to find that the TSA (now CSA?) were all very kind. I never thought I’d hear the words “Have a good flight” in that corner of bureaucracy. And instead of marching me off to the side and demanding that I surrender my half bottle of water or be “escorted out,” the woman who found it in my bag merely asked if I wanted to go outside the security area and drink it or if she should toss it. Faced with this display of rationality and human feeling, I was practically speechless. In the terminal proper, I stopped at a kiosk to buy some non-bomb-containing water, and I asked the seller why everyone in the airport was so nice now: they’d never been before. She responded… nicely… that it was better than being nasty, and I told her I appreciated it. It really made everything about the airport experience more tolerable.

My flight home was relatively uneventful—I especially appreciate the jet stream, if that’s what explains the much shorter time in the air when going east—except in Chicago (hub of all airline ills) where something happened to the “auxiliary power” and we had to wait on the plane for airport maintenance to come and fix it. The delay was probably less than an hour, but I always have a heightened sense of fear when I get that close to home and face the possibility of being stranded, as I did a couple years ago.

The cats were thrilled to have me home, and for the first day and a half they didn’t let me out of their sight. I’m sure my sister Barb did a great job of caring for them—including a repeat of the lying on the floor by the bed and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Luther when he thought he had found a secure hiding place. She says he eventually got out from under the bed and walked slowly away… I picture him backing slowly away, with two paws out as if to say, “That’s fine, don’t get up.”

My method of unpacking after a trip involves several days and an attempt to expend no extra energy whatsoever. If I happen to be going into the bathroom, I’m happy to pick up a used Kleenex or a plastic bottle of lotion along the way and bring it with me. If I’m going downstairs, I’ll bring along a t-shirt that needs to go in the laundry, as long as I don’t have to go out of my way. This doesn’t work for very long, because eventually I have to take active steps to empty the suitcase and organize the clean vs. dirty clothes, but it lets me feel for a short time like I’m getting away with something.

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Oh, what will become of me?

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #56: July 2012

July 24, 2012

 I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body.—Robin Morgan

Girlhood is a cruel joke played on those of us who did not come into the world obsessed with princesses and the color pink. In the 5th grade I realized that the 6th grade girls—like canaries in the coal mine of femaleness—had completely changed. They were getting all… girly… their whole focus was on their hair, clothes, behavior and appearance, which is to say on boys. I liked boys fine; but I had enjoyed a freedom with them that wasn’t based on my appearance or, god forbid, any semblance of demure behavior. I played sports, climbed trees, and all that. Yes, I was a “tomboy”—which only means that you’re granted the freedom of a boy up to the point where you’re supposed to turn into a “real girl,” like a bizarro-world Pinocchia who wants nothing of the sort.

I do believe that many or most children are born into biologically consistent “feminine” or “masculine” sex roles—that girls want their dollies and boys their trains and trucks, even before they’re encouraged in those directions by parents and society. But lots of us are born another way. It bugs me when lesbians (and tomboys) are considered to be aping male behavior—“penis envy” apparently arising from girls’ discovering they have nothing “down there,” whereas boys have something. (That’s an interesting theory. Use the same logic on other body parts. Is a mouth “nothing” and a nose “something”? Which would you rather do without?) No, we’re doing what feels natural, just like they are. To me, femininity, with its dress code and limited interests and second-class status, is a complete artifice. Many gay men are also into artifice—playing the highly exaggerated female or male. And of course there are “lipstick lesbians” and “bull dykes.” Everyone is just trying to fit in, to be themselves… to find a role that makes sense in a highly gender-based society.

And frankly, I think lesbians and gay men are a harbinger of where we could go as a species if we took the radical step of acknowledging the feminine and masculine qualities that everyone has to some degree, instead of insisting on the rigid sex roles that are still the norm. It’s true that all evolution “cares about” is propagating the herd… so in that strict sense, all that matters to the species as a whole is making more babies. You + me + baby makes 3. But humans have gone far beyond that basic math. And we need both women and men to use all the faculties at their disposal. It’s ridiculous to claim that “If everyone were gay, the species would die out.” (a) Not everyone is going to be gay, and (b) if we ever experience a shortage of humans, all people except the old and infertile have the ability to make more—and an amazing number of us, gay or straight, want to.

The following photos show the evolution of a girl from freedom through femaleness and on to personhood.

age 10, when I was still free (with Lana, a neighbor girl)


age 15, in full defeat (my mother took this picture with her usual disregard for what I would consider “humorous”; but I must say, it expresses a kind of truth about my situation; I certainly felt trapped between icy weapons of ma’s destruction)


age 23 (?), on my way to self-definition, though I didn’t yet realize that my family (and thus I) was working class.



age 44, fully myself, helping in the demolition of the space that would become the Center for Creative Exploration, A Painting Studio (330 Chenery St., San Francisco, CA  94131)



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                                F A M I L Y

It’s weird how fast things can change. An innocent gesture, a passing comment, the smallest thing can mark the beginning of the end. In my family there has been a major rift in the time–space–recliner/couch continuum. The end has come for me and my brother-in-law, MP.

I first met MP at my father’s funeral in 1969. He and my sister K have been married for something like 39 years. But the longest I’ve ever been around him has been the last 8 years that I’ve lived back in my hometown in the U.P. It hasn’t always been easy, but I did think we had a bond of sorts. When I moved back here, K confessed that she was afraid MP and I would clash. I understood her concern, because he takes pleasure and pride in confrontation. He calls this “telling it like it is,” and “if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.” He’s alienated almost everyone he’s ever known, including his own family. And I—as you may or may not know—do not suffer fools gladly, so in a way ours was always a match made in hell.

But, for K’s sake, I did everything I could to make it work. I could almost always make him laugh, and when I couldn’t, I tried to overlook his mood—or challenged him when he went too far, such as the time he claimed to be “the boss of the family” and thus of me. While my sisters sat by in silence, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not “the boss of me” and if there was going to be a boss, it wasn’t going to be him: I was the oldest, he had married into my family, and if we were going to have a boss, it should be K, because I didn’t want the job.

So I adopted an attitude of strength, nonjudgment, and respect; it was sometimes difficult to maintain, but I genuinely enjoyed the banter that was our most frequent way of relating.

ImageThen this happened. We were over at K&MP’s house on a Friday night. These occasions have devolved from going out to eat together every week… to getting together every week but eating take-out… to going over there only by invitation… and now to Barb and me eating beforehand because, according to MP, it was “a hassle” to have the conversation about what everyone wanted to eat. (He never had to go pick up the food, so it was hard to believe it was really that big of a deal.) Anyway, Barb and I were invited over one night to see the Prowler travel trailer they’d just bought, and we spent the rest of the evening listening to our nephew rant about everything in his world: his girlfriend’s son, the school, the school bus, other drivers, his coworkers, his boss, and on and on. He used to be the sweetest person but has made himself over as a tough guy, apparently in his dad’s image.

At 9:00 we’re all standing around their tiny kitchen, getting ready to leave, and MP tries to get past me to get to the sink or whatever. Reflexively, I move back slightly so that he can’t get by. Yes! This is the kind of hijinks (“unruly and often hilarious but troublesome fun” [Urban Dictionary]) we North-Mid-Westerners like to get up to! But instead of saying “Ha ha, now move your ass,” he starts pushing me. I’m in stocking feet so slide right across the floor and up against the stove. I’m trying as hard as I can to push back against him, while K cries, “Don’t break my stove!” I’m laughing, I still think we’re having some good clean fun, or hijinks, as we have countless times before. But suddenly MP lets go of me and steps back. All my momentum has been going in his direction, so of course I fall and land on the floor hard, on my tailbone. I’m shocked, I can’t believe what has just happened. I’m going “Ow, ow.” K comes to help me up, but I tell her, “Give me a minute.” My nephew and his girlfriend take this opportunity to duck out the door, because what do they care, apparently. With some effort I hoist myself up by gripping the table and the countertop. I gather my bag, keys, and water bottle and mince toward the door. I don’t look at MP, but I kind of wish I had. What would I have seen on his face: a smirk? a look of concern? He had to have known I would fall when he let go of me.

K’s face as she hugs me good-bye is stricken. I don’t hear what Barb is saying to MP, but she later tells me: “This is where you say, ‘I’m sorry, Mary, I hope you aren’t hurt too bad’.” He just stares at her. Then Barb and I are out by our cars, she’s asking me if I’m all right to drive, offers me an Advil, hugs me a couple times. K and MP are standing in the doorway, MP looking contemplatively off into the distance, thinking who knows what.

Later that night I e-mail K to say, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” She thanks me for letting her know, because she was “worried sick.” I also e-mail Barb to tell her I made it home OK and am “fine.” I knew I’d be sore for a couple days, but I was still having intermittent pain 2 weeks later. I’m pretty sure you can’t break your coccyx (pronounced cock-sicks) without knowing it, but it was still a little worrisome.

Through the weekend, I kept thinking I was going to get a call or an e-mail from MP, apologizing—probably with a minimum of sincerity, but at least it would be something. On Sunday, I half-expected them to show up at my door, as they sometimes do when they’re out driving around the park. I don’t hear anything for the next week. Barb sees K when they go rummaging, but I don’t know if they talk about what happened. I finally decide that if I stay quiet about it, everyone will think it was no big deal and will breathe a sigh of relief that I have chosen not to rile MP, which would make life harder for K. It’s in no one’s interest for me to make a scene, even a mild one, because we are a family whose substrate is a rug bulging with the many interpersonal issues that have been swept under it. But I have chosen to consider my own interest for once. I will not and cannot let this stand.

So I write an e-mail addressed to both K and MP. I say I could accept that what he did was due to a momentary brain malfunction but that not apologizing is unacceptable. I hazard a guess that he might have been embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, but “I’m sorry” would be a good start.

ImageI had already begun writing about what happened. One of my favorite parts of preparing the ‘zine is looking through the images on for possible illustrations to use. I start by looking for a cartoon of a boy pulling a girl’s pigtails, because that junior high dynamic seems like a possible explanation for MP’s actions. After much searching, trying different terms, I find a delightful image that personifies how I was coming to see the incident: a bizarre pas de deux between two old folks making fools of themselves, but all in good fun (until it wasn’t).

But I was jolted out of this hopeful fantasy when I got the replies to my e-mail.

K said she was tired of being in the middle (defending MP against others, and others against him), that he and I were both at fault, she loved us both, and she couldn’t choose sides.

I guess I understand the part about its being partly my fault. I was standing where he wanted to be, yes, and I resisted when he pushed me, like the uppity dyke I am.

MP’s response was in all caps and very hostile, along the lines of: YOU STARTED IT! and IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO SAY SORRY, FORGET IT!  Actually, I thought it was interesting that he didn’t use any profanity. Was he restraining himself (as I was) for K’s sake? I hear tell she confronted him after I left: “What were you thinking?

Was he feeling emasculated? I have no patience for that claim. When they aren’t lording it over us, they’re having a pity party about their precious balls. Which are broken oh so easily, by us. I’ve read that women’s greatest fear of men is physical, whereas men’s greatest fear of women is being ridiculed. They don’t want us to have any weapons whatsoever! And since I must say it every time, by “they” I don’t mean all men, I mean those who have no respect for women. I’m not saying MP was consciously trying to hurt me, but what he did was deliberate and had easily foreseen consequences.

It’s not uncommon for the accused to turn the situation around and blame the victim. A man caught cheating on his wife cries, “If you hadn’t taken that job, I wouldn’t have gotten angry, and none of this would have happened!” (Army Wives, 7-15-12)


I’m in shock for a few days. The feelings come and go (talking of Michelangelo). Every so often I get a fleeting sense of something else, a breath of fresh air. To have the truth out in the open, no more straining to keep my cool, to keep my mouth shut “for K,” to suffer in silence, or occasionally to stand up and say what I have to say… but always with the fear of capsizing the family boat.

During that time, contrary to my “bulging rug” metaphor (and the family boat, for that matter), I have this dream:

I’m standing in the small back entryway of the house I grew up in. There’s the outside door, the door into the kitchen, and the door to the basement. Except the door to the basement isn’t there… nor is the basement!! There’s nothing but Void. The outside door doesn’t have a lock on it, so there’s no way to keep anyone else from falling into the Void. Then I wonder how stable the floor under my feet is.

It only took me a few days more to become almost giddy with the realization that I no longer have to tiptoe around the elephant in the room. What if he apologizes, you ask? He won’t, trust me. It’s inconceivable. And even if he did, it would have to be in a parallel universe where I’m thin, can eat whatever I want, and the sexes are mutually respectful (to cite the three most important qualities of a parallel universe I’d want to be a part of). No, the die has been cast. Barb and I helped K celebrate her birthday recently, so I’m hoping the three of us will occasionally be able to get together on our own, “just us girls.” Then it will be K’s problem to deal with MP.

It’s no longer mine.


Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free. I feel free.

            —Cream (“I Feel Free”)


p.s: I was talking on the phone to P, whose yard is being professionally landscaped. It’s taken longer than expected, but she was pretty sure they would be done “today,” or certainly by tomorrow. I pointed out (as is my wont) that, according to my favorite ancient paradox, if they only did half of what they had to do every time they came, they would never finish. Eventually, they would be bringing one grain of sand. Then they’d have to find a way to cut each grain in half. When they got down to the atomic level, they’d have to go over to Switzerland and use the Large Hadron Collider to make smaller and smaller particles. If this were a fully developed joke, there would be a punch line. Alas, it is not.


Mary McKenney

mary’zine random redux: #11 pt2 February 2001

January 25, 2010

I was a teenage beatnik wannabe

“You had friends in high school??” —my therapist J, sounding just a bit too incredulous

At the end of a 5-day painting intensive, a woman who was fairly new to the group said she had been nervous about coming. “I thought it would be like high school,” she said. “A clique running the ‘school’ and me on the outside like always.” I knew what she meant—you’re never too old to feel like a dorky freshman in a new group—but I wanted to say, “Honey, if this were like high school, I wouldn’t be hanging out with the popular kids—don’t worry about it.”

Back in ’61-’64, my friends Jerry and Gordy and I were on the cutting edge (in our own little small-town way) of the coming countercultural heyday that came to be known as “the sixties.” But the cutting edge is not always the place to be, when you see yourself as potentially infinitely cool for listening to Bob Dylan records, reading J.D. Salinger and the Saturday Review of Literature, and longing to have your own “pad” in New York City—while the rest of your little world sees you as three dorky musketeers, twerps in sheep’s clothing. The literary magazine we started as seniors—we called it Review IV because it was our fourth year of high school—hardly made a ripple on the local scene, but the aspiring poets who read our bulletin board notice at City Lights Bookstore in the magical city of San Francisco sent us their earnest young compositions, never the wiser about who we actually were. I still have the original submissions in a box somewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t unearthed any hidden gems from now-famous poets. Most of the poems we got from that ad were along the lines of “Here are a few of my favorite things/puppy dogs and sunshine…” (the women) or else raw cries of existential angst (the men).

I shouldn’t talk—I was writing truly terrible poetry at the time. One poem started, “All life comes in a-sordid colors.” I was so proud of that pun, I couldn’t really get past it. Unbeknownst to me, I actually made a start in the right direction when I wrote a long, free verse poem for senior English about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. Of course it was hokey, but it was at least from my heart and in my own voice. But pre-1965, the literary world was the ultimate boys’ club, and the boys were still caught up in the postwar heroic despair of looking for meaning in a meaningless universe. And believe me, dead birds were not the way to go. Jerry made such fun of the poem that I stopped writing poetry then and there. Not that he ever wrote anything, but he was a born connoisseur of literary excellence, just ask him.

Long before the days when student rebellion was as de rigueur as sock hops and football games, Gordy and I staged little defiant acts that centered, in those more innocent times, on dress codes. Being the girl, I played the supporting role. Boys were required to wear belts to school, and we all had to stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning. So Gordy rebelled against two birds with one stone. As the rest of us heaved ourselves out of our chairs for the obligatory nationalistic display, he ostentatiously removed his belt and handed it off to me. Then he slouched smugly in his seat while I stood there with my right hand over my heart and my left hand clutching this symbol of (Gordy’s) chains of oppression, feeling like a doofus in my mother-enforced frizzy hairdo, pink-rimmed glasses, and unredeemably dorky Montgomery Wards rust-colored skirt and blouse. As a teenager, the distance between how I felt and how I was allowed to present myself was infinitely large. I was primed for “the sixties” like you wouldn’t believe.


Jerry turned out to be gay. He’d had season tickets to the civic symphony since he was 12, which definitely made him “queer” in the general sense, but no one around there knew what “gay” was, least of all me. So all through high school I waged a pointless battle for his romantic attention. He was every bit the ugly duckling I was—painfully thin, unruly hair, glasses; his father worked in a print shop, and they didn’t even own a car—but Jerry was way, way above such considerations. He was my mentor in all things cool because he was so sure of himself, for no reason any of us could figure out. He was a terrible student but saw himself destined for great things. He moved to Indonesia right after college; he was a misfit here, but he lives like a king surrounded by nubile houseboys over there.

I spent so much time with Jerry—hatching our literary aspirations (I was going to be the William Faulkner of the U.P.), listening to classical records he got from the library to educate me—that my mother said to me bitterly when she came to pick me up one day, “Why don’t you just marry the guy?” I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I knew she was jealous of my crush on my English teacher, Ruth, but I know of no reason why she wouldn’t want me to be friends with this perfectly harmless boy.

Gordy, on the other hand, had a motorcycle and would take me riding while my mother fretted at home. This at least made more sense than her disdain for Jerry, but for someone who supposedly wanted me to have a social life—she’d counsel me before school dances (to which I went alone, of course), “Just walk up to a boy and say, “Hi! I’m Mary McKenney!”—she had a funny way of showing it.

Gordy was not gay but was so shy that it took me a good 15 years to realize that he had been waging a small battle for my romantic attention all through junior high and high school. Once again, my life takes on the aura of an O. Henry story. By the tenth grade, I bore the scars of years of being the ugly girl—boys making fun of me, snickering to one another when they had to dance with me during a “ladies’ choice,” Vernon Lemke holding me at arm’s length, one hand in my armpit to stave off any closer contact. So when Gordy became part of Jerry’s and my bohemian clique, I still saw him as the squirrelly kid who had pulled my hair and grabbed my purse in junior high. He had beautiful straight black hair, cut like the Beatles’, but he was short and swarthy (I realize now that he looked a little like Prince, but that look was way ahead of its time) and terribly insecure. We were both Jerry’s intellectual protégés, so in going after Jerry, I was, in effect, choosing the “alpha male,” such as he was.

I was so far from being able to imagine any boy being interested in me that I completely ignored the clues—that Gordy and I would lie on my bed in the dark, at his insistence (where was my intrusive mother?), listening to Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary records; that he gave me a wagon wheel he had burnt half-black with a torch and attached a rusty chain to (he was the artistic one of the trio—his bedroom had a fishnet draped from the ceiling, black walls, and lots of Chianti bottles with candles dripping multicolored wax all over them); that he once pulled his jacket over his head and threw a ring at me, in an apparent bid to make me his “girl.” I laughed it off, not having even the faintest idea that he could be serious. In my rare moments of feeling empathy for teenage boys in their quest for female acceptance, I think of Gordy. And even now, I wonder if I could be imagining the whole thing.

After high school, Gordy disappeared somewhere and later surfaced in Maui, where he lives to this day, as far as I know. Jerry and I both went to Michigan State; we saw each other on campus occasionally, but he had bigger fish to fry. He collected a series of beautiful, emotionally unstable gay men he took home to Menominee for visits, his mother glad he had so many “friends.” I learned about lesbianism from the first joke I heard in college. One roommate says to the other, “I want to be frank with you.” The other says, “No, I want to be Frank.” (I had to have this explained to me.) In my sophomore year, there were two lesbians in my creative writing class. I would see them walking on campus while surreptitiously holding hands behind their backs. I was totally creeped out and said contemptuously to Jerry that I had seen some queers. He was so deeply closeted that he didn’t say a word.


… she might well have wondered what there could be but a future of pain for a woman who cannot be a part of conventional society. Poor Elvira! Think of the anguish, being on the fringes of real life, not having a family, not producing roly-poly grandchildren, going from spiky-haired woman to spiky-haired woman, marching in so many parades, spending vast sums of money on therapy, keeping a houseful of cats. —Jane Hamilton, Disobedience

Then I fell in love with my roommate. BR (her name was Barb, but I don’t want you to confuse her with my sister) was a beautiful, voluptuous girl from Detroit who was acting out like crazy, in retaliation (I surmised) against her psychologist mother. She would sleep with men on the first date and then come back to the dorm and get in bed with me and weep on my chest. Unfortunately, we were total closet cases. We joked about “being Frank” all the time; we held hands, I sat on her lap, and she gave me excruciatingly so-near-and-yet-so-far backrubs, but neither of us had the nerve to go any further. When I realized what I was feeling, I looked up “lesbianism” in the library and was not put off in the least by all the declarations of “perversion.” (Remember, in 1965 no other interpretation was available, at least in mainstream sources. We have indeed come a long way.) I was already in counterculture mode and was relieved to find out why I had always felt “different.” Now I know that there’s a whole slew of reasons for my feeling of differentness, but at the time it was a liberating discovery.

My desire for BR was stronger than anything I had ever felt. My pursuit of Jerry and my crush on my English teacher were nothing in comparison. I can still see her creamy white breasts gleaming in the moonlight as she swept into my room, robe flying apart, but I could no more have touched her or spoken about my feelings than I could have flown to the moon—which we also didn’t know was possible in those days. All I could do was watch her and suffer in silence, letting Peter & Gordon’s song—“Woman, do you love me?”—express the unsayable.

BR and I planned to drop out of college after our sophomore year and move to New York City, where her autoworker stepfather could get us secretarial jobs in the union office. But in the meantime she acquired a boyfriend, Jim, whom she tried to get me to sleep with (Freudian much?), and went to the college counseling office for help in making her choice. The counselor told her to choose the man, and she did. She married and quickly divorced him, then married another guy. In one of her later letters to me, she revealingly said, “He’s fun, but he’s not you.” I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I had declared my interest. But something tells me I would have been just as unsuccessful with her as Gordy was with me. If you’re not ready for something, you can’t see it even when it’s standing right in front of you, its jacket over its head, tossing you a ring.

As it turned out, I dropped out of college anyway, but I didn’t run off to New York, I just hung around East Lansing with my remaining roommates, getting stoned out of my mind and celebrating—ironically—the Summer of Love.


If you come to a fork in the road, take it. —Yogi Berra

When I was in the tenth grade, a few of us nerdy types started a literature & philosophy club called PhiLi. We met in the popular kids’ hangout, a funky little restaurant at the intersection of Highways 41 and 35 that everyone called “The Pit.” We did not meet at the same times that the popular kids did. (Once, I was invited to The Pit by the popular kids after a rehearsal of the school play—I was a makeup girl, believe it or not—and I remember just sitting there frozen, speechless, having not the faintest idea of what to say to people who had it in them to be homecoming kings and queens.) In PhiLi, we read William James and debated some of the eternal questions, such as: If you’re walking around a tree on which a squirrel is scrambling around the trunk, are you also walking around the squirrel?… and … (of somewhat more immediate interest): Are we governed by fate, or do we have free will? i.e., did we each make a free decision to come to The Pit tonight, and what if we had come halfway and then turned around and gone home, would that mean it was fate that we didn’t come, or that we had exercised our free will?

The club didn’t last very long.

But the question about fate vs. free will is, of course, always with us, and I still wonder if the forks in the road we come upon really represent choices or if there’s some inner compass that causes us to forge ahead on our One True Path regardless of other so-called possibilities. Is my present life merely a consequence of not becoming lovers with BR, of not going to New York? Is it only because these things didn’t happen that I became a librarian, that I met Peggy in my first (and last) library job, that I moved to the Bay Area and started an editing career, that I was led to a fulfilling, creative life through painting….? To this day, I’ve never even been to New York. Is there a Mary in a parallel universe who lives in the Village, who became an editor in a publishing company instead of a university, who rides the subway instead of the ferry? Or was I destined to come to the Left Coast, to ply my trade and write my little ‘zine (far, far from the literary pretensions of Review IV)? It’s not as if these questions keep me awake at night, but when I’m between work assignments and have spent the afternoon napping and reading the latest John Grisham novel, and the sun is setting pinkishly through the window above my computer, and I have pan-fried filet of sole to look forward to for dinner (pan-fried for me by the chefs at Woodlands Market)… what the hell?


Lately, I’m continually bombarded with images from random moments of my past, as if I’m flipping through a photo album of my life, or spinning a wheel of fortune that lands briefly on this or that person or scene. I’m beginning to see why old people spend so much time thinking about the past. You spend your 20s and 30s building your life, having relationships and making a career—thinking you’ve escaped whatever gruesome childhood and adolescence you endured—and then when you turn 50 or so, there it is, staring you in the face again, demanding to be acknowledged, like a slo-mo version of your life flashing in front of your eyes. It seems as if the past doesn’t get more and more distant, as logic would dictate. It curves, maybe, like space, coming back around again, feeling like yesterday. Maybe when you die, your life is revealed to have been lived all in one “day,” all as accessible to you as what you had for breakfast this morning.

I was sitting at my desk the other day, editing a book about all the horrible things that bacteria can do to cheese, milk, meat, vegetables, grains, i.e., every food item we hold dear—there’s even a “cocoa and chocolate” chapter—and I had a visceral kind of insight, an undeniable sense that we think in terms of horizontal, i.e., time “going by,” linear, us floating in it—when actually our experience is vertical—nothing moves, we are like pillars standing in time, and what “happens” to us is all happening at the same “time,” like when the laser printer messes up and all the letters of your sentence pile on top of one another. We think our lives are like sentences, paragraphs, like we’re volumes in a great library of never-ending rows of shelves. But actually it’s as if there’s a plumb line going from God, down through our center into the earth and beyond. Everything’s happening on this line. All our experience is equally present (if a bit compacted), there’s no such thing as “movement.” Which is why, I suppose, we’re exhorted by the Buddhists to “live in the moment,” because there’s nowhere else to be.

I know this is abstract, but when I had this insight, I was thinking about our December painting intensive and of some of the wonderful moments I had with people there, and I realized that those moments are still alive—even the moments we had last year, or 3 years ago—they are not “lost in time,” any more than loving someone who lives 3,000 miles away is diluted because of the space between you. The profound experiences I’ve had are all here now; all the people I’ve ever loved (or not) are here, patiently waiting their turn in the line at the memory bank, ready to make a deposit or a withdrawal, nobody’s going nowhere.

It’s like nothing is ever lost. And maybe the body itself is the memory bank—the bricks&mortar/flesh&bone institution that organizes the experience. So maybe it’s not about choosing roads more or less traveled by but about simply being. I don’t think I missed out on my “real life” by not recognizing Gordy’s interest, or by BR not recognizing (or acting on) mine. I did finally meet someone, we recognized each other’s interest, and the laughs and tears ensued. Maybe it always looks “meant to be” when you look back on your life, but I can’t help thinking it’s a true perception. You start out as an acorn, end up as an oak tree; where does “choice” come in?

I don’t know if anyone else is interested in these crackpot theories, these half-baked intuitive fantasies of what the world is really like. I suppose I could take a poll of my readers and see what percentage wants to read about: (1) cats, (2) travel, (3) food, (4) “physics,” or (5) sex (eek!), but don’t fence me in, you know? Sometimes I feel like a kitten chasing a ball of yarn, I just like to see it all unravel.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #8 Oct./Nov. 2000

October 3, 2009

the trip of the century

Considering I’m not exactly Travel Girl, my trip to western Massachusetts to see Terry and Jean was a huge success. My extensive planning paid off, as did my years of therapy, which have taught me a thing or two about boundaries and about staying in my body when I have the impulse to flee.

I admit, there were times when the planning got a bit out of hand, such as when I was writing a note for Pookie’s temporary caretaker, Jean M. I wrote down instructions for what to do—the feeding, the watering, the scooping—plus the phone number for where I’d be, the vet’s phone number, the pet ER’s phone number, the office hours of the vet, the hours of the pet ER, plus special situations such as the vet is open certain Saturday afternoons so call him first, but all day Sundays or weekdays after 6:00, just go ahead and call the pet ER… and by then I had run out of paper and realized she probably wouldn’t need to call the vet anyway. Five days in the life of your average cat usually aren’t that exciting. Clearly, I was projecting my sense that leaving home for even a few days would create massive shifts in the earth’s infrastructure and permanent changes in climate. I tore up the note and wrote a new one.

Food—as you might expect—was also planned down to the last bite. I had snacks for the plane—popcorn, peanuts, energy bars—and even an alternative lunch in case the vegetarian lunch I had ordered was inedible (“vegetarian” turned to “vegan” in United’s computer—I’m sorry, but vegan is way too exotic for my tastes—if exotic is even the right word). Kate had advised me to bring a sandwich or a burrito, but I was too self-conscious to eat brazenly from my land-based food supply while fellow passengers picked at their foil-wrapped food-like substances. So instead, I packed a Tupperware container of roast chicken in bite-size pieces so I could nibble on the sly. (Yes, I know no one would question my supplementing a vegan lunch with chicken, but still….)

The night before the trip, I barely slept. The brain was all set to go, rehearsing the final steps that would have to be taken when the alarm went off, going over and over the plan. As usual, the body was left eating the brain’s dust. All it could do was lie there hoping against hope that the brain would eventually wear itself out with its thinking, and for a while it did, and the body took its few zzzzzz’s in the early morning hours.

Alarm goes off. Travel Girl—for she is de facto Travel Girl for the next 5 days—thinks there’s plenty of time to complete the duties on the last-minute to-do list, but the 2 hours allotted for final packing, eating, and bathing pass so quickly that the last few minutes are a blur, and she runs out the door without time for a final, careful perusal of every room in the house. The car does not break down on the way to the Marin Airporter, so that is good. (Each leg of this trip is going to be measured in such small victories.) She buys her bus ticket and manages to lose it between the service counter and the bathroom, a distance of about 10 feet. Panicking (so soon the plan starts to unravel? she can’t believe it!), she asks the weary bus counter man for another pass to get on the bus and is told she will have to fork over another $13. She retraces her steps and finds the pass lying on the floor of the bathroom stall. This lack of focus is not a good omen, she thinks.

(As the reader has perhaps divined, the out-of-body experience has begun, and all actions are being observed from a vantage point about 5 feet above Travel Girl’s head. Part, but not all, of the explanation for this is Dramamine, that miracle motion-sickness pill that permits the airborne journey in the first place but takes a toll on body, mind, and spirit.)

Before she knows it, Travel Girl has arrived uneventfully at the airport, has stood in the interminable, snaking line with the true Travel People (most of whom have learned from experience to pack everything on wheels), and is now seated at gate 75, boarding pass in hand, with a  mere 2 hours to wait for the plane to take off. She spends the time alternately people-watching and reading the book she has brought, the perfect easy read for the circumstances, Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener. Throwing convention to the winds (it is only 9:30 a.m.), she starts in on the snacks… first the popcorn, then surreptitious bites of chicken sneaked out of the Tupperware. (Like many other things about Travel Girl, her secretive nature passeth understanding.)

Miraculously, the flight is on time, and it’s nonstop to Hartford, so it feels like a small step for a woman, a giant step for this same woman to actually get on the plane and take her seat, a window seat right over the wing, so she has an unobstructed view (of the wing). She waits breathlessly for her seatmate to show up—will it be a Bratty Child, a Talkative Woman, or a Lecherous Man (the only choices, she fears)? Bingo, it’s a Bratty Child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy with a doting mother. Travel Girl’s heart sinks at the thought of spending 5 hours next to an active, much-loved, much-indulged child. The plane starts moving, but 10 minutes later it appears they are going to roll all the way to Massachusetts. Finally—airborne! Now the trip feels like it has officially begun. Mother and Child begin a series of games to keep Child occupied. The first game involves spelling, but while the Mother supplies various consonants for the Child’s edification, the only letters at his command appear to be “I?” “E”? “I?” “E?” spoken with emphasis, volume, and unrelenting regularity, with the counterpoint of Mom’s futile suggestions of “D?” “T?” for at least the first 200 miles. (Are they trying to spell DIET, or am I just paranoid?)

Fortunately, I have read Rob Morse’s column in the Examiner about survival tips for flying. His Number 1 tip is to block out the sounds of children and other living things. So I narrow my focus, concentrating on my book and resigning myself to a cross-country spelling bee. But gradually, I realize that this Mother is actually aware of when her Child is kicking or slobbering on Travel Girl and pulls him gently away. For this I am extremely grateful. It makes all the difference between occasional annoyance and all-out despair. (No, it doesn’t occur to me to interact with the Child, why do you ask?)

The vegan lunch consists of a container the size of a 3 by 5 card with soft, unidentifiable vegetables, an unidentifiable grain, and an unidentifiable sauce. I do, in fact, supplement the official vittles with my bootleg chicken. The Child has fallen asleep, the Vegans have provided me with a cookie that would not be considered edible on land, but something about being airborne—like being in the hospital—makes every little offering a mystery to be unwrapped if not savored. So I nibble on the no-wheat/no-dairy/no-sugar/no-kidding cookie and consider that maybe Traveling isn’t so bad after all. Besides, I’ve got plenty of peanuts.

While I succumb to leaden, Dramamine-induced sleep, time flies—ha ha—and before I know it, it is nighttime and we are approaching Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. I admit that I have spent a few short moments in the air worrying that I have miscalculated the geography of the eastern states and that when Terry said “Hartford,” she meant someplace called Hartford, Mass., not Hartford, Conn., where I am about to land. But no, it’s the right Hartford, so once again I feel my Travel Karma is right on track.

I wobble and lurch my way down the ramp to greet my friends (I had to take a second Dramamine over Nebraska to be sure that I would remain drugged throughout the flight.) My first words are, “You should be honored—I wouldn’t do this for just anybody.” It’s great and bizarre to see T&J on the other side of the continent—they have always come west—and it’s great and bizarre to be on the other side of the continent. The miracle of flight, to this fledgling Travel Girl, is still a mystery right up there with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Lo and behold, my duffel bag—which I had packed for Y2K seemingly a century ago and then unpacked to put it to actual use on this trip—which was like opening up a time capsule and marveling over the ancient artifacts—the dental floss, bank statements, and pulp fiction, the lost pair of black pants that I had been searching for for weeks—appears in the stream of rotating luggage, and I pluck it out gratefully, one more step of my journey successfully negotiated. We walk out into the cool night air and climb into Jean’s SUV, the first such vehicle I’ve seen that is actually used to navigate wintry dirt roads, not as a status symbol to drive to the grocery store. It’s unseasonably cold, I’m told, but I bought a microfiber jacket for the trip, and I’m snug as the proverbial bug. Planning Girl feels vindicated.

We discuss what to do about food for quite a few miles—it’s 8:00 p.m. for them but only 5:00 for me. (Over the next 3 days I will be constantly pointing out the time difference—“I can’t believe I’m eating lunch at 9:30 a.m.!” “I can’t believe I’m eating dinner at 3:00 p.m.!” What a delightful houseguest I must have been.) We end up at one of my favorite kinds of places, a real, honest-to-God diner. I’m thrilled to be sitting down on a solid chair on solid ground in the company of my friends. Suddenly all things seem possible, even Travel. (That might be partly due to the Coke I had on the plane and again in the diner—caffeine on top of motion-detector-deadening Dramamine makes me feel hopped up on goofballs.) My first moment of culture shock is when I smell the smoke emanating from cigarettes brandished by unrepentant customers in adjoining booths. I feel like such a California purist, not a citizen of the real world at all but coddled and buffered in her home state from Life’s Unpleasant Emissions.

Hmmm—I’m on page 4 and we haven’t even gotten to T&J’s house yet. I think I need to pick up the pace a little bit. Well, I’m thrilled and impressed by their new house—beautiful and spacious, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fir trees and reports of mountain lions in the back 40, with a huge dome of stars overhead. I have my own bedroom and my own bathroom. Finally I begin to relax after the months of anxious planning. The whole raison d’etre of the trip comes into focus—travel isn’t just about transportation, it’s about destination. I have successfully left my cocoon and soared across friendly skies to land in a friendly foreign environment. It’s a good feeling.

For those who don’t know them, Terry is an old painting friend—we’ve braved years of Esalen workshops and the intense teacher training together, and she is teaching now. Jean is her partner, whom I had met only a few times before but felt comfortable with instantly. They are like family to me.

After sleeping off the double dose of Dramamine, I awaken at 4:30 a.m. (body time) and try to reconcile the sunlight coming in the window with my creature sense that it should still be dark and (more important) that I should still be asleep. Jean has been called away early for an emergency meeting of a community board she’s on, so Terry and I laze away the morning, catching up on our news, taking a tour of the house, and playing with their new black kitten, a fireball named Gus, whom I rechristen Thugmuffin for his alternately Cuddly-Cute and Hell-on-Paws antics.

Western Massachusetts is a revelation to me—everything so clean and orderly, barely populated (or so it seems), hardly any traffic, cold, clear, and bright, with beautiful greenery everywhere. Shelburne Falls reminds me of my youthful days in Northfield, Minnesota—one of those small towns filled with college-educated folks who take classes in stained glass or stone carving and act in the community plays. I realize that one reason I haven’t liked to travel is that I’m afraid of awakening my desire, of wanting something new that will be inconvenient and require sacrifices. But with T&J I feel both expansive and contained, so it feels safe to fantasize. I let myself imagine who I will have to convince to move with me. (If you think I’m going to name names, you’re crazy.)

I’m excited by everything I see—the “bridge of flowers,” the Art Bank where Terry teaches, the tree-covered hills, and the brick architecture I’d almost forgotten about while living in the far west. T&J seem to know everybody in town. We run into the female owners of Margo’s Bistro, where we’re going to eat that night; their contractor; the head of the Art Bank; the editor of the newspaper. Despite the appeal of the small town, that’s one thing I relearn about myself, that I prefer being anonymous in my daily rounds.

Also, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fall, my favorite season, and the weather is basically like S.F.’s, only about 10 degrees colder. Easy to fantasize about all-fall-all-the-time and forget the twin tortures of winter and summer. At dinner, we run into a fellow painter, Deanie, who does a satisfying double-take at seeing me transplanted 3,000 miles from the site of our last encounter. I choose tofu and pasta for dinner—as with the airplane vegan lunch, I am making half-hearted strides toward a healthier diet—and the faux-meaty taste of the tofu links reminds me of my earlier attempt at vegetarianism, when the first tofu hot dog I ever tried seemed like a viable option, and the second one proved inedible—some strange chemical reaction, or else my mind catching on to what I was eating. But also, it’s only 3:00 p.m. Pacific time, and my stubborn body has rules about when it will eat what.

That night Terry and I try out their new hot tub—a wonderful shock of liquid body heat in the midst of a cold, starry night—and I don’t know if it’s the tofu or the full day of being introduced to strangers, or the release of tension after months of Travel Girl Planning, but my lower lip starts trembling and my eyes start leaking hot tears into the hot water. As always, I try to figure out what’s wrong, but the beauty of my long friendship with Terry is that there’s a mutual loving acceptance of each other’s idiosyncratic crying patterns, and so the storm comes and goes without very much precipitation and no storm damage at all.

The next day, we drive to Northampton, and I discover that this is my fantasy town. It’s like a small city or a neighborhood in a big city, with lots of colleges in the surrounding area so it’s a beacon of hipness and literary and artistic activity. The book Home Town by Tracy Kidder is about Northampton. I love the downtown with its lovely brick architecture and church spires, its independent bookstores, its cool kids on the street looking much like cool kids everywhere, but in the crisp fall air I am again reminded of my youth in Ann Arbor and Northfield, that carefree time of college and the few postcollege years when earning a living is less important than hanging out with the tribe.

We check out some shops. I buy a souvenir for friends back home and a book for myself and lust after all the things that I never want until I see them—like a cool folk-art car made out of wire. Along with the coveted artifacts are the so-called art forms that defy belief, like the framed paint-by-number pictures of birch-tree-by-the-lake landscapes. We can’t tell if they’re actual paint-by-numbers or are just painted to look like them, in some new-millennial campy homage to the “folk art” of the mid-20th century. Irony so ironic that it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

Speaking of food (weren’t we?), we eat a wonderful dinner at Mulino’s, a little Italian restaurant. My head is full of the pictures of me living there, in that small arty city, my computer and my cat all I’d need to make a cozy home from which to run my editing business. Once again, I have to remind myself of the Impossible Seasons that were one (two) of the reasons I moved to California in the first place.

The third day passes in a flash of talks and walks and more food and meeting some of their friends. Sunday morning it’s all too soon time to pack up and put my travel plans in reverse. Gus Thugmuffin “helps” me unmake the bed and pack my duffel bag—he cuddles up in the bag at one point, in his Cute As a Button persona, but besides the fact that T&J would surely miss him, Pookie would never approve. We take a last walk down their country road, watching geese land in the newly cut-down cornfield, me inhaling the final eastern smells before returning home.

Before I know it, I’m plunged into Airport World once again. I’ve been especially worried about the trip home, because I have to change planes in Chicago. Also, there is only going to be a “snack” between Hartford and Chicago and then nothing until “dinner” between Chicago and S.F. But the snack turns out to be a box lunch of white chickenlike substance on a white doughy bun, so that provides bulk, and once again I’m saved by a cookie. My seatmate is a taciturn woman who is either as unsocial as I am or is terrified to fly, because she only starts babbling when we land safely in Chicago.

This is getting boring, and there’s no more food worth talking about, so let’s skip ahead, shall we? I arrive in S.F. and spend an anxious half hour trying to get from the new international terminal to the north terminal. (Somehow we and the baggage have landed in two different places.) I survive the interminable bus ride from the airport to Larkspur Landing, pay for my parking, drag my luggage to my car—thrilled that it hasn’t been vandalized—and as I drive home at 11:00 “real time”—“real time” is now East Coast time, and I have no idea when I made that particular adaptation—I feel like a subject in a physics experiment. If my destination = x, then I am always at x – y. It may just be the Dramamine again, but it’s as if time has stopped and there exists only space—more and more space between me and home.

But the physics of everyday life prevails, and I am allowed to arrive home. First thing I do is call Pookie, and after a long pause, he comes bumping hesitantly down the stairs, meowing weakly. Five days in solitary confinement has aged him. He comes and sniffs me and the duffel bag, finding indisputable olfactory evidence of Gus Thugmuffin. It’s like being caught with lipstick on my collar.

Seventeen e-mails await me—10 of them spam. Oh well. It’s good to be home, but it’s disconcerting that I’m not desperately grateful to be in my own world again. I mean, I’m glad to be on solid ground, to have the Travel portion of the program come to an end, but I guess I learned that it’s possible to partake of someone else’s world and not give up my own—to take my center with me instead of treating it like a major appliance I can only plug in at home. Viva Travel Girl! Where will she go next??

big dyke with a blue head

Well, I could take my happy ending and stop right there, but life has an annoying habit of changing right when you have everything just the way you want it. After I’d been home for a few days, I lapsed into a deep depression, or deepressionTM, with a soupçon of smoldering anger. I spent a lot of time lying in bed watching TV and talking back to annoying sit-com characters. I was practically on suicide watch—had to get rid of all my belts and shoelaces. (Pause while I laugh maniacally.)

I was having all sorts of physical symptoms—stomach, foot, hip, you name it. I wanted to smother my sorrows in food, but I was still trying to follow the blood type diet. I had managed to change only a couple of things—drinking soy milk on puffed rice instead of cow’s milk on Grape Nuts Flakes. I don’t think this a revolutionary diet change makes.

When I saw J next, I could barely drag myself in the door. I was dressed all in black—color-coordinating my mood. I don’t like going to therapy when I feel that way, because I’m afraid she’ll get all chipper and practical on me, and I find both of those things hard to handle when I’ve already decided I have nothing to live for.

J asked how long I’d been feeling depressed.

“… Since I talked to the psychic.”

J, bless her heart, laughed. I love that about her—no poker face. I had to laugh myself, then, despite my black mood. We decided it was the perfect beginning to a short story—if only I were a fiction writer, which I’m not. I sobered up quick. I hadn’t planned to tell her about it, it was too embarrassing.

[I had called this person, a “medical intuitive,” about my stomach symptoms, just in case there was something the doctor and the surgeon had missed. She can give people readings over the phone, she said, because she “doesn’t believe in time and space”—she only needs your name to “locate you in the universe.” I’m thinking, “So there’s no time and space, but there are names?” The psychic was silent for a while, tuning into my frequency, and then she said my “adrenals had lit up,” and she rattled off names and dosages of several vitamins and various concoctions I should be taking. She also said that my back and shoulder muscles are constricted and pressing on the vagus nerve, which goes down to the top of the stomach. She said this was “psychologically caused by hiding, holing up in yourself.” Now if this isn’t a perfect description of me, I don’t know what is, but I contend she could have got that information just from my terse replies to her questions. If you look up the word “monosyllabic” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of me.]

A few days before, while sleeping the afternoon away, I’d dreamed about a woman with a shaved head whose whole head, including face, was dyed bright blue and had colorful tattoos all over it. In the dream, I thought she was strangely beautiful, but I wondered what she would do if she ever had to get a real job. The paint and tattoos were indelible—there was no going back. J pointed out that this was the part of me that I try to keep hidden—my exuberant dancing, painting self—and that I should focus on bringing that part out, rather than following depressive thoughts down the rabbit hole.

The thought of coming out of myself is terribly threatening—is it because my mother burst any bubble of exuberance that floated to the surface? J says the “why” is no mystery, but understanding is not enough. The important thing is to undo the somatic patterns. So we worked on that a bit—organizing and disorganizing the clenched fists, which reflexively returned to their clenching as soon as the exercise was over.

Throughout the session there had been noise coming from all directions, and it became impossible to ignore. There seemed to be a Noisy Man Convention coming and going in the hall outside the office. Someone in the construction company upstairs was banging on the floor as if trying to break through J’s ceiling. Loud motorcycles and cars revved up in the street right outside the window. I decided it was synchronicity in the classic sense—as in Jung’s story of the woman who was telling him her dream about a scarab beetle, and a scarab beetle came flying in the window. If there is no time and space but I am a name locatable in the universe, then it makes sense that I could be projecting all the inner noise of my body and mind into the surrounding landscape. A frivolous idea, perhaps, but no more so than many others I entertain.

At the end of the session, to get some energy moving before I left, J had me do some karate punches in the air. Usually, I “express” anger with a grunt and a muttered expletive. It felt good to be doing something physical, even if J wouldn’t let me use her as a punching bag. My assignment for the week was dancing, singing, deep breathing—movement of any kind. I promised her I’d start doing Taebo again. (Note to self….)

Afterward, feeling much better, I—no, I don’t go for a hike or run around the park—I treat myself to a beef taco and a margarita at Las Camellias and then stop for some Ben & Jerry’s on the way home. Plenty of time to start my exuberance training tomorrow. I watch “Freaks and Geeks,” stay up till midnight listening to “Loveline,” and feel just a little bit closer to being human.


But the good mood doesn’t last. The next day, I walk to the gas station to buy a Chronicle, and as I go to step off the curb—with the WALK sign flashing—a car screeches to a halt in front of me, half in the crosswalk. I veer around the car, thinking how close I may have come to being creamed, but before I can thank the universe for saving my life, the driver snarls, “You big dyke!” My stomach drops, but I ignore him, hoping he thinks I didn’t hear. My insides are like jelly, and I wonder why I let things like that bother me. Is it my own shame I’m reacting to? If he yelled “You big Democrat!” with the same snide tone, would I feel the same way? Obviously not.

I scurry home to my safe haven—if a big dyke can be said to scurry—and think about my dream of the woman with the blue head and colorful, indelible tattoos—the one who has put herself out there, who can’t get a real job anymore, who can’t go back. Is that person really inside me? And if she is, why am I hiding her, and what good is it doing me? If you’re already a big dyke, is it that much of a stretch to show off your blue head?

For the next two hours, I can’t stop thinking about that man and his casual insult. At first, I can only feel the shame of being different, of being despised by the world. But gradually the alchemy that began in the therapy session starts to do its magic, and I feel a stirring from within. I start to get pissed off. “Thank you, Mister Man,” I say, “for your succinct commentary. I hope you think I was on my way home to jump in bed with a beautiful woman. I hope I’m somehow a threat to your pathetic manhood, that you can’t stand to know there are women like me out here loose in the world.” As my chest inflates, my fists curl up. I sock the air. Take that, and that! I wake up inside. For once, I feel like a big dyke with a blue head—strangely beautiful—indelible—and I can’t go back.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #9 December 2000

July 20, 2009

I read the following letter in Miss Manners’ column the other day and was quite shaken by it.


Dear Miss Manners: Recently I’ve received letters without any personal touch. These writers discuss activities, life and the future, but never mention personal views relating to the recipient and never answer questions nor issues raised in past letters to them. It is not a one-time thing. One young writer has sent five such communiques—four pages each, informative, insightful, incisive, but with zero “sharing” and/or a sense of one-on-one communication. This may help high-track movers fulfill their social responsibilities to communicate with others, but to the recipients it becomes another sample of Christmas-letter indifference and laziness.

This letter is real. However, I have fabricated the response I wish Miss Manners (who instead agreed with this misguided soul) had made.

Gentle Reader: Get over yourself. Not everything is about you, you, you. These impersonal letters are called ‘zines. The high-track movers who write them work long and hard to make them informative, insightful, and incisive. Kwitcherbellyachin’. If you want “sharing,” get a dog.

But seriously, folks, thanks for renewing. My audience is small but very hardcore. Speaking of hardcore, I was going to surprise (shock) you with an X-rated issue this time, but then I realized it’s December, the time of little children and sugar plum fairies, the time of that other X—the one who put the X in Xmas—and I decided to postpone the profane revelations for now. Consider this a naughty tease.

Of course, an X rating would have been one way to distinguish the mary’zine from those other mimeographed (aesthetically speaking) “Christmas letters of indifference and laziness”—but this way you’ll have something to look forward to—out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.

Xmas-wise, I mostly turn a blind eye to the goings-on and just wait for it to be over. I fully support the Buy Nothing movement and would like to extend it to Do Nothing. I get so tired of all the hype about how well (or badly) the merchants expect to do this year—now with the added suspense about whether people will continue to buy via the Internet—with follow-ups after the 25th on how well they did do and what it all means to the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. But I have to admit, I’ve had some lovely Christmases, spiritual ones, mostly with people who weren’t Christians, come to think of it—where we were able to touch into what Deepak Chopra meant when he said, “We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences.” This is a place I often touch through painting, and maybe that’s what I miss when I look around and see so much hoopla about commerce and so little of the contemplation and reverence that should be the basis for a holy-day of a major religion.

But just on the level of navigating the highways and byways, I always breathe a sigh of relief on January 2. Back to real life, when I can go out and buy socks or toothpaste without fighting the frantic holiday crowds. Funny, when I had a job, I used to get really depressed in January—all those nice paid holidays were over. Now I don’t get paid for holidays (or sick days or vacations); I work 6 days a week. I bill by the hour, so I only get paid for the time I actually work (vs. the average 4 hours of work that most employees do in an 8-hour day); I have no guaranteed income—I have to accrue it $100 or $300 at a time and hope that the work will keep flowing my way; and—guess what—I’m not only happy as a clam but my favorite day is Monday and my least favorite day is Friday. How’s that for weird? I can’t really explain it. My world has been turned on its axis, and it seems to suit me just fine.

Being self-employed isn’t for everybody, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s for me. I don’t have nerves of steel. I’m not super well organized. Discipline is not my middle name. I love working at home, with no one looking over my shoulder, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the tide of household distractions from washing away the sand castle that is my daily accrual of Billable Hours. When you work at home, home becomes this enormous sinkhole of energy and demand. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my house, because it’s not like I spend much time cleaning it, but all my stuff is here, and it calls to me. The washing machine calls to me to put a load of clothes in while I’m fixing my morning snack of peanut butter and rice cakes. The cat box, the cat dish, the cat water bowl, the cat—all of them call to me to take just a minute or two away from that fascinating manuscript about the phylogeny and evolution of low-G+C gram-positive bacteria and scoop, feed, water, or pet. My bed calls very loudly from the next room, especially after lunch—Maaaaary, you are getting sleeeeeepy. I don’t dare open the mary’zine file until my workday is done, because I’ll get sucked in and won’t even notice the hours slipping by.

I do miss having coworkers to hang out with, but I try to take up the slack by e-mailing my colleague Ellie on the other side of the continent. Mostly, we talk about the project I’m currently working on for her, but there’s always room for a weather report (S.F. and D.C.—always opposite), a story about the family (her) or the cat (me), or a joke about George W. Bush.

And of course, Pookie is always a force—sometimes for good, sometimes for eleven smatterings of throw-up across two rooms, which I found when I went downstairs today. He mostly likes having me around, but sometimes I think he sees me as the retired husband who’s always underfoot. He’ll be resting quietly—lounging on a piece of cardboard, as if it’s the finest satin sheet—and I’ll go up to him, all cooing and petting. He’ll crack one eye open, and his look says it all: “Don’t you have work to do?” But sometimes he really seems to get a kick out of me. He likes it when I sing and dance for him when a good song comes on the radio. One day I was doing my serenade routine, singing along to a catchy new song with my arms spread wide, addressing him at high volume—which always makes him perk up, if only to look for an escape route—and I suddenly realized that the lyrics coming up were: “BE my… beeee myyyy… pussycat…pussycat…” and I collapsed in giggles. He gazed at me, pretending to be captivated by my performance, but I knew he was thinking, “Somebody’s bipoooooolar….”

People who work regular jobs have no idea how fast a day at home can fly by. I used to picture myself going out for breakfast, dawdling through the hours I saved by not commuting. Ha! I swear there must be a special subsection of the theory of relativity that covers the paradox of Home Time vs. Job Time. At my job, it was all about finding ways to relieve the boredom—talking to coworkers, running in the park, going for coffee, playing computer solitaire. I still watch the clock at home, but it’s for the opposite reason: Damn, I’ve only worked 1.5 hours this morning, and it’s already time to go for my haircut—or to the dentist—or shopping for dinner—or going to the ATM, post office, Fed Ex, library, bookstore, drug store, or a million other destinations. Suddenly I’m Errand Girl. When did I used to do errands? Did I even have errands? Now, errands are my life. When Home isn’t calling me, Stores are calling me. Life suddenly wants me to be everywhere but at my desk working, and all I want is to be at my desk working. It’s insane. The few days when I have food in the house and have no appointments or other reasons to go out, I’m in hog heaven, if hogs liked to work.

And at the end of the day, I’m like Silas Marner, counting up my gold coins. I guess I would feel more secure having a regular salary, but there’s something about having to earn it one drachma at a time that adds a little spice to the working life. When my job ended, I honestly thought I was going to end up a bag lady. Who would have thought I’d enjoy living on the edge?

ferry tale

If you do not compare yourself with another, you will be what you are.

So can you stand to hear another travel story? It’s pretty exciting, and I don’t want to overstimulate you.

I recently had a birthday. I had decided that this year on my birthday, I was going to take the ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, no matter what. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years, and I had never taken the ferry, except for a short jaunt on the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island many years ago. I have wanted to do this for a long time but kept putting it off, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to buy my ticket, where to board, where to get off, what to do after I got off, etc. Face it, I am a big chicken, sQUAWWK.

But my trip to Massachusetts (zine #8)—mundane as it may seem to a seasoned traveler—taught me that, first of all, one person’s comfort zone is another person’s scary unknown. Risk is relative. Some people, crazily enough, would find it scary to write a one-woman ‘zine and send it to all their friends. Ha-ha-ha! And some people, sad to say, find the thought of any form of travel that is not conducted from behind the wheel of one’s own car quite daunting. So let’s not judge.

One of my projects in middle life has been to learn the belated lesson that, when you try something new, mistakes are not only surmountable but inevitable. So when I planned this birthday ferry trip, I gave myself permission to make all the mistakes I needed to. I decided it would be a fact-finding mission, an initiation into the mysteries of watery public transportation. I wouldn’t have to do anything earth-shaking (which is the last thing you want to do in S.F. anyway) or glamorous upon arriving on the far shore—just getting there and back would be enough for this maiden voyage. If I managed to walk around for a bit and find a place to eat lunch, that would be the icing on the birthday cake.

It was a good thing I had given myself this permission, because my first mistake was to think I could blithely drive up to the ferry parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday and park. What was I thinking? The commuters fill the place up by 8:30. A uniformed man turned me away but said I could probably find a spot across the road at the Marin Airporter lot. Fortunately, I had parked there for the Massachusetts trip, so I knew what to do. It was a relief to hustle back on foot (threading my way through the acre of cars), find the ticket window, and still have a little time before they let us board. Just that little victory left me feeling flush with success.

On the ferry, I immediately headed for the outside deck. There was less chance of getting seasick out there, and the main point of the trip was to enjoy the view of the bay and the skyline, smell the sea air, and all that. Within minutes, I was joined by a youngish guy wearing shorts, polo shirt, and baseball cap and carrying a knapsack. He asked me if this was the only deck, and I said I didn’t know, I’d never ridden the ferry before.

“Oh, so you’re a tourist too?”

“No, I live here, but I’ve just never….” I trailed off, embarrassed.

To my surprise, we fell into a conversation. I asked where he was from—he had a Spanish accent—and he said “St. Louis.” So much for assumptions. Marty said he loved the Bay Area but that he wouldn’t want to live here because of the way Latinos are stereotyped. He told me he had been driving around lost in his friend’s car that morning, looking for Larkspur Landing (he had driven over to Marin from Oakland! And I had been nervous coming from a couple miles away!) and he had ended up on that strip of Bellam Blvd., in my neighborhood, where Hispanic men gather every morning, hoping to get a day’s work. He had gotten out of his car to ask a passing pedestrian how to get to the ferry, and before he could finish his sentence, she had said, “Yes, this is where you stand.” Obviously, she had assumed from his accent that he was one of the day laborers, even though he was dressed like a tourist.

Marty said to me, “I was offended by that. I am an educated man. In St. Louis, I am treated with respect.” That surprised me, because I would have expected California to be a more hospitable place than the Midwest for any person of color. My assumptions were crumbling fast.

But I immediately understood the seeming discrepancy, and I told him about how, in the Midwest, no one would look twice at me, but here, in the supposed gay mecca, I get harassed all the time. He couldn’t believe it. Turns out he was gay, too (my gaydar had failed me), and he wanted to believe that San Francisco was the Shangri-La he had always thought it to be. But it was exactly as he had been saying about Latinos. The more exposure you have as a minority, the more crap you’re going to get. I think I really burst his bubble.

Marty said he owned three doughnut shops in St. Louis and paid $400 a month rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice area. I oohed and ahhed but politely didn’t say, “But you have to live in St. Louis.”

So we talked all the way across the bay, and the ride was over much too quickly. He had a big day planned—even though rain was threatened, he was going to take BART to the Castro, rent a bike in Golden Gate Park, and ride to Land’s End to check out the nude beach. He hugged me and said, “I hope everyone is as friendly as you are.” I almost choked. I guess it’s true what they say about travel—even 30 minutes of travel a few miles from home—you can be whoever you want, because no one knows any different.

After we landed, he took my picture, and I decided to accompany him up Market to Powell St. So we found the Embarcadero BART station, bought tickets, and descended to the lower level. I had shared with him my near-native knowledge of the BART system, except that I had gotten it confused with Muni and gave him entirely the wrong directions. Fortunately, I realized my mistake in time, though I felt like a complete idiot. (Fact-finding mission, I had to remind myself. Fact-finding means you can’t get the facts until you find you don’t know them.)

On the train, he mentioned that he was always looking for a boyfriend, and I teased him about meeting me instead. He said, “I don’t talk to men, they’re too intimidating.” I said, “I don’t talk to lesbians, either.” We cracked up. Despite gender, age, and ethnic differences, we were totally in synch.

Finally we bade each other farewell, and I got off at Powell and started walking in the direction of Folsom St. I had cut out a newspaper article about restaurants in the city and decided to try to find a place called Mo’s Grill. It turned out to be inside Yerba Buena Gardens, a fact it took me quite a while to find. But I felt so proud of myself when I was finally seated at a table by the window. My favorite singer, Van Morrison, was singing “Brand New Day” in the background, and I smiled to myself, an in-joke in my crowd of one. I had arrived, I had navigated my way across miles of water and city sidewalk to this oasis of urban delight, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Unfortunately, the Dramamine I had taken “to be on the safe side” in case the bay was choppy started to take its toll on my energy level, so I decided to head back to the Embarcadero right after lunch. I passed by the Museum of Modern Art, so I went into the gift store and bought myself a t-shirt—hypocritically, since I have zero interest in what the “art world” is up to these days—then wound my way through the lunchtime crowds—9-to-5’ers, eat your hearts out—and retraced my steps to the waterfront. For the last two blocks I got drenched by a sudden rainstorm and instinctively cringed from the rain until I realized it didn’t matter if I got wet—I was wearing my new microfiber, weather-resistant jacket.

By now I felt like an old hand at this ferry-riding business, but I congratulated myself too soon. After handing over my return ticket, which I had carefully placed in a special compartment of my satchel, I sauntered around, waiting patiently to board. I was pleasantly full and not unpleasantly doped-up from the Dramamine. A uniformed man came along and said the Larkspur ferry would be leaving “all the way to the end of the pier,” so I marched down there, suddenly full of myself and my new travel smarts. Way before the place where the ferry was docked, there was a little closed gate barring the way, so I blithely lifted the pole that kept it in place—proud that I saw instantly how it worked—and was immediately yelled at by the ferry workers, “Go back, go back! Close the gate!!” as if I had wandered onto a firing range. Trying to maintain my cool, I replaced the gate pole in the slot and turned to see about 15 people behind me, people who all knew to wait behind the gate and were no doubt thinking what an idiot I was. But who knows, maybe there was someone in the crowd who would have done the same thing and was giving silent thanks that I had gotten there before she did. Soul sister, this mistake’s for you.

I enjoyed the ride back to Marin. This time I was alone on the deck, so I got to watch the S.F. skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the beautiful storm sky. It started pouring rain halfway across, so I went inside, where it smelled like a bus and was full of silent, world-weary—or at least ferry-weary—commuters working on their laptops. I went back outside as soon as the rain cleared. The sense that I could move, change my mind, make decisions, not know in advance what seat to take or what gate to go through seemed terribly liberating, though of course only on the tiniest of scales, and mostly in principle. I am not yet ready for India.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Marin, home sweet home. Trudging through the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge, and over to the Marin Airporter, I was exhausted and my feet were killing me, but I was feelin’ fine… until I got to the counter where I had to give the man my parking stub. Oh oh. I had thought I’d put it in the special compartment of my satchel, but no, that was the ferry ticket. I started frantically looking through my bag, with a horrible sinking feeling that I had somehow managed to drop my parking stub instead of my ferry ticket in the ticket receptacle at the ferry. If I showed the airporter guy my ferry ticket, would that convince him that I had made an honest mistake and didn’t have to be charged for 30 days of parking?

Me: I don’t seem to have my ticket.

Him [with the most impassive face I’ve seen since Mt. Rushmore]: I need it.

What made it 1,000 times worse is that he was the same guy who had witnessed my losing of the bus pass when I went on the Massachusetts trip. I was even wearing the same clothes. Surely he wouldn’t remember me, surely this sort of thing happens all the time? He continued to stare at me, giving nothing away. Finally, I pulled the stub out of my jacket pocket, where I had carelessly stuck it instead of preserving it in a special compartment. Thank God. Thank you, thank you, beneficent God Almighty.

I can’t help it that everything in my life is a big deal. And actually, there’s an up side to that. If the smallest venture out into the world is difficult for me, then even a small adventure will reap great rewards. It’s that relative-risk thing I mentioned earlier. I see it as a kind of emotional homeopathy. Other people have to jump out of airplanes or climb mountains or seek out dangerous rivers in the jungle to have a feeling of adventure. All I have to do to push the envelope is to lose a ticket or go through the wrong door. My skydive, my mountaintop, my Amazon river is all around me. I’m just living on a smaller scale than some people—like that species of moth or butterfly that only lives for 24 hours.

In my defense, I’ve faced many big challenges on my own—I’ve moved to other states, bought a condo, had a successful career, started my own business—and, of course, I live alone, which creates all sorts of opportunities for bravery—but in some perverse way, the small unknowns can be more daunting than the big ones.

the heart of creation

…when I picture my mother playing the piano, I think of a stillness, a pinprick of a place inside her that is profoundly still. I wonder if a sublime quietness is at the heart of creation.
—Jane Hamilton,

But the unknown can get even smaller(bigger) than taking a public conveyance across small waters. Change and movement can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. I went to painting class one Wednesday morning and started a new painting. I had no idea what to paint, so I started with myself—a peach-colored blob for my head and peach blobs for torso and hips, and longer peach extensions for the limbs. I was supremely not knowing what to do, but for some reason my guard was down and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just let it develop any way it wanted to. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a kind of trance state, painting my internal organs—stomach, heart with tubes sticking out, plus lots of imaginary organlike structures, none of which followed any rules of color or shape or function. I spent two and a half hours painting this strange body, or rather, letting it paint itself.

In the group sharing afterward, I felt stoned, deeply touched. I looked around, and everyone in the circle looked like a heroin addict after getting a fix—but it wasn’t lassitude, it was a deep, quiet presence. No one was preoccupied with being somewhere else, no one was putting on a façade or resisting the silence.

I’ll never get over how strange it is that when you go deeply inward, you connect up with everyone else who is deeply inward. You’ve all been in your own worlds, literally with your backs to each other, for 2 or 3 hours, and when you stumble out of the painting room and try to find words to express what happened, you find you can just look in people’s eyes or make a tiny joke, and you’re all right there, together, as if you’re all the same person with many different faces. Strange that it takes diving into your uniqueness to discover your commonness with others on a heart level. This is what the “creative process” is about, not what ends up on the paper.

It’s not that painting always manifests as this stoned bliss of connectedness, but when it does, it’s a gift. On this day, the afterglow lasted for hours. I didn’t want to leave the studio, but at 1:30 I couldn’t ignore my hunger pangs any longer. So I went off to get my usual burrito and eat it at my usual spot—Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. But what wasn’t usual was that I wasn’t in a mad rush to get home to take a nap or check my e-mail. I felt like I was in love with everyone I saw—it was as if everyone was a walking archetype, vulnerable and simple—part of the human family. The young people, the old people, everyone so perfectly themselves. In some cases you could see the pain etched in their faces and in their posture. This one bent old woman walked toward me as if pushing into a steady wind—well, it was pretty windy that day, but she looked like she’d been pushing for a long time. I ached for her in a way that (needless to say) I don’t usually allow myself to do. We think it would drain us to feel so connected to other people; we don’t realize that that connection is what keeps us alive. What’s draining is to insist on our separateness.

It was a beautiful day in San Francisco—cool and sunny, with a fresh ocean breeze that ruffled the treetops and filled my lungs with cool air—and I lost all unfaithful fantasies of moving back east. After I ate my burrito, I walked around the lake, loving every sight and smell. I wanted to drink it all in—the cloudless blue sky, the ducks floating peacefully in the water, the trees moving in the wind. It’s not that I felt like a different person—I was aware of my usual reactions—but I couldn’t be mad at anybody, even the woman who went into the men’s bathroom by mistake because she saw me coming out of the women’s. I walked toward a sea of pigeons on the sidewalk, getting ready to be annoyed at the man who was feeding  them, but just as I was about to gear up for my internal diatribe, I came closer and we looked at each other, and I was struck by the kindness in his face. He was wearing green scrubs; there was an old woman in the car, dozing in the front seat with the door open while he fed the birds. Was he a nurse? I took all this in in a millisecond, and then I smiled and said “Hi,” and he smiled beautifully back at me. Was this his usual smile? Was he just naturally sweet? Or did I give him something to which he was responding? It was the briefest possible encounter. Is it really possible to make a difference in the world with just a smile at the right moment? It’s so easy to think of all the times our kindness or generosity fails to transform a moment or to have any effect at all—but I suspect we don’t even know, most of the time, what sparks we emit or what encouragement we give just by being aware of each other.

It was like that—magical—all afternoon. I didn’t even mind the other cars on the road. The radio kept playing all these sweet songs—“What If God Was One of Us?”; “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now….”; U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I was going to take a nap when I got home, but there was work for me by e-mail. So I spent 2 hours editing a business plan for a biotech startup instead, and even that didn’t bother me. I just felt grateful for having a successful business and having the freedom to schedule my own work and take time to drive to the beautiful city and paint gory, beautiful self-innards, and see my beautiful friends and feel that deep connection that seems so elusive and yet is so available, why do we not always feel it?

To me, that day was a day spent traveling, though I walked in the same steps I’ve walked many times before. It wasn’t about covering miles or discovering cultural differences. It wasn’t about being a stranger in a strange land—except, perhaps, the land of Love. It wasn’t about bearing discomfort or proving one’s fortitude. It wasn’t about going out at all, though I felt I extended myself. Mostly, it was about opening up to the vast world that lives inside of us. It’s not a world you can buy a ticket to, you have to have faith and be a little diligent about gaining entry. Sometimes travel isn’t about conquering the world or confronting strange customs or difficult terrain—it can be about making a small inroad on your own sense of isolation, and discovering that the world will come to you.

[Mary McKenney]

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